Milwaukee won behind 32 points Khris Middleton. Jrue Holoday added 27 points, nine rebounds and nine assists.
As the final buzzer sounded and the Bucks players swarmed the middle of the field, putting on hats and t-shirts that advertised them as Eastern Conference champions, the players hugged and laughed. The coaches kissed. Antetokounmpo, who has been out since injuring his knee in the third quarter of Game 4 when he landed awkwardly after challenging an alley-oop, was in the middle of it all – a triumphant fist raised in the air .
Thursday marked the end of a Milwaukee playoff streak that was cut short or gone bad. In the 2019 playoffs, the Milwaukee Bucks swept the Detroit Pistons, beat the Celtics in five games and took a 2-0 lead against the Toronto Raptors in the final of the Eastern Conference. Then, after losing back-to-back games once the entire regular season, the Bucks lost four straight games to the Raptors and were eliminated.
Last season in the NBA bubble, the Bucks had a disappointing end in the playoffs. Milwaukee had won the No. 1 seed and beat the Magic of Orlando in five games. But Antetokounmpo sprained his ankle in Game 3 of the team’s series against the miami heat.
He attempted the shot in Game 4, but sprained his ankle again in that game and was unable to play in Game 5, when Milwaukee was knocked out. At the time, Antetokounmpo said “no one was going to be happy” with Milwaukee’s 2019-20 playoff result. He said he hoped they could learn from the loss.
It seems they did.
The Bucks avenged last season’s loss and outwitted the Heat in four games in the first round. Halfway through this series, leaving the guard Donte Di Vincenzo injured ankle. He underwent end-of-season surgery on a ligament in his left ankle in June and PJ Tucker slipped into a starting role.
Yet Milwaukee continued to roll. After losing 3-2 in a wild series against the betting title favorite brooklyn nets, the Bucks outlasted them in a seven game streak. And after losing at home for the first time in the playoffs in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bucks hit back, including winning two games without Antetokounmpo.
In Game 6, the Bucks took a 15-4 lead early on before the Hawks roared to make it a one-possession game. The Bucks weathered this storm as well, once again pushing their advantage to ten. The Bucks’ double-digit yo-yo score leads to a bucket of benefits, but Milwaukee never lagged behind.
When the Hawks got closer, Milwaukee had answers. Middleton scored 16 straight points in the third quarter to extend the Bucks advantage on his way to scoring 23 points in the third quarter. It was his third 20-point quarter of his playoff career, according to statistics and information from ESPN. No other Bucks player has done this even once in the past 25 playoffs.
Atlanta continued to claw, reducing the Bucks’ 22-point lead to six in the fourth quarter. But in the end, it turned out to be an insurmountable obstacle for the Hawks. A dagger wedge 3 from Tucker secured victory for Milwaukee.
All the while, Antetokounmpo stood – hardly ever seated – on the sidelines in black shorts and a Bucks warm-up shirt. A protective sleeve swaddled his hyperextended left knee. But even injured and unable to play, Antetokounmpo was in the middle of the party on Saturday night. Her longest hug was reserved for her brother and teammate, Thanasis.
And while no public decision has been made on whether or not Antetokounmpo will be available to play in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, one thing is certain: the Bucks are sitting on top of a hill that ‘Antetokounmpo has been planning to reach for years.
Now they only have one more step to complete.