Khris Middleton scored 23 third-quarter points en route to 32 overall as the Milwaukee Bucks advanced to the NBA Finals with a 118-107 win over the host Atlanta Hawks in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference Finals series on Saturday in State Farm Arena.
The Bucks led 47-45 early in the third quarter after a layup from Hawks center Clint Capela, but Middleton went on a personal 13-0 run to give Milwaukee a 60-45 edge.
The Bucks, who never trailed, led 91-72 heading into the fourth quarter and held an advantage of six or more points for the remainder of the game despite a late Hawks charge.
Jrue Holiday complemented Middleton's effort by posting a near-triple-double (27 points, nine assists and nine rebounds) to help overcome the absence of Bucks forward and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who remained out of the lineup with a hyperextended left knee suffered in Game 4.
Hawks guard and 2019-20 All-Star Trae Young returned after missing two games with a right foot bone bruise suffered in Game 3. He had 14 points on 4-of-17 shooting, nine assists and five turnovers.
Atlanta forward Cam Reddish excelled off the bench, dropping a team-high 21 points and hitting six of seven three-pointers.
The Bucks are now seeking their first NBA title since 1971, when they swept the Baltimore Bullets in the championship round. They haven't played in the Finals since 1974.
Bucks F Khris Middleton: 32 points, 7 assists, 3 steals
Bucks G Jrue Holiday: 27 points, 9 assists, 9 rebounds, 4 steals
Bucks G Pat Connaughton: 13 points, 8 rebounds
Hawks SF Cam Reddish: 21 points
Hawks SG Bogdan Bogdanovic: 20 points, 3 steals
Hawks PG Trae Young: 14 points, 9 assists
Without Giannis, Middleton Guides Bucks Into NBA Finals
The Bucks faced a tough task when Antetokounmpo, who averaged 28.1 points, 11.0 rebounds and 5.9 assists during the regular season, suffered a knee injury during Game 4.
That's a lot of production to replace in short order, and the Bucks faltered without their superstar in Game 4, eventually losing 110-88.
However, the Bucks rebounded and were able to make the NBA Finals without Antetokounmpo, and Middleton played the biggest role in that effort.
Middleton posted 26 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds in Game 5, which the Bucks won 123-112.
On Saturday, the two-time All-Star caught fire during his personal 13-0 third-quarter run, hitting a pair of three-pointers, a couple of two-point buckets and a three-point play in a two-minute span. He ended up scoring the Bucks' first 16 third-quarter points en route to 23 in the frame on 8-of-11 shooting.
🔥 23 for Khris Middleton in the 3Q, including the first 16 <a href="https://twitter.com/Bucks?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Bucks</a> points! 🔥<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NBAECF?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NBAECF</a> presented by AT&T on TNT <a href="https://t.co/XMbGFPAItw">pic.twitter.com/XMbGFPAItw</a>
Middleton's efforts were duly recognized:
Taking over quarters in the playoffs isn't new to Middleton, as ESPN Stats & Info noted:
He also made some Bucks history along the way:
Khris Middleton scored 23 PTS in the third quarter tonight. Entering tonight, no <a href="https://twitter.com/Bucks?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Bucks</a> player had 23+ PTS in an <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NBAPlayoffs?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NBAPlayoffs</a> quarter over the last 30 seasons. <a href="https://twitter.com/EliasSports?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@EliasSports</a> <a href="https://t.co/FKTcHEBgaK">pic.twitter.com/FKTcHEBgaK</a>
Most importantly, though, Middleton's third-quarter outburst ultimately gave the Bucks enough cushion to survive a late fourth-quarter run from the Hawks, who fought until the very end.
However, Middleton proved to be too strong on this night, and now Milwaukee is looking for its first championship in 50 years.
Once Again, Hawks Fight and Claw to the Finish
Milwaukee appeared destined for a blowout win as it took a 22-point lead early in the fourth quarter, but the Hawks had other ideas.
They pared the Bucks' lead down to as many as six points in the quarter following a Capela dunk to cut the deficit to 107-101 with 3:41 left.
Down the stretch, a Bogdan Bogdanovic three-pointer cut Milwaukee's edge to 113-106 with 1:20 remaining.
A defensive stop and another Atlanta bucket would have made this a two-possession game in the closing minute, but it wasn't meant to be. Middleton found P.J. Tucker for a corner three-pointer, and that all but sealed the Bucks' Eastern Conference title.
It was a disappointing finish for the Hawks, but Atlanta deserves much credit for never giving up, which has been the case multiple times in the playoffs.
The Hawks trailed by 26 points in Game 5 of their second-round playoff series on the road against the Philadelphia 76ers but won 109-106. The game before, they were down 18 before coming back and winning 103-100.
The Bucks' seven-point lead with under four minutes left in Game 1 also evaporated against the Hawks, who ended up taking the series opener 116-113.
On Saturday, they made things interesting in a game that looked over.
The Hawks trailed 102-84 with 8:17 left, but the Hawks went on an 8-0 run capped by a John Collins three-point play:
The Bucks maintained their distance and led 107-94 with 5:25 on the clock, but Reddish kept Atlanta alive, nailing a three-pointer to give the Hawks a glimmer of hope:
That began a 7-0 run, which finished when Reddish found Capela for a dunk:
The Bucks offense was too strong, though, as Holiday responded with a bucket. The Bucks led by seven or more from that point on en route to the win.
Still, the Hawks' grit and perseverance haven't gone unnoticed.
For starters, the fact that Young played was impressive enough. He clearly looked hampered by his foot injury, as evidenced by his off-shooting night. But he gutted it out for his team in hopes of avoiding elimination, symbolizing the heart and tenacity that the Hawks have sported all postseason.
Reddish had been out for four months with right Achilles soreness before returning for the Bucks series on a minutes restriction, and he was the Hawks' best player Saturday, playing 29 minutes.
The Hawks have clearly established a new identity under interim head coach Nate McMillan, who deserves to be the long-term sideline solution after he joined a team that was 14-20 before he arrived.
They're a scrappy team that doesn't quit with a bevy of good long-range shooters and talented big men who have room for even more improvement.
The season may not have ended the way they wanted, but the Hawks aren't leaving the playoff scene any time soon.
A championship drought will end shortly.
The Bucks will face the Phoenix Suns, who have never won a title and are making their first Finals appearance since 1993.
Game 1 will be at Phoenix Suns Arena on Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET.