ATLANTA (AP) — The Milwaukee Bucks are headed back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974.
They didn’t even need two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to lock up their spot.
Khris Middleton scored 32 points, including a run of 16 straight points in a decisive third quarter that carried the Bucks to a 117-107 victory over the upstart Atlanta Hawks in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals Saturday night.
Milwaukee won the series 4-2, advancing to face the Suns in the NBA Finals. Game 1 is Tuesday night in Phoenix.
Trae Young returned to the Hawks lineup after missing two games with a bone bruise in his right foot, but the young star never got anything going. After both teams struggled to find the range in the first half, the Bucks suddenly couldn’t miss in the third quarter.
Atlanta actually had a chance for its first lead of the game when Young’s behind-the-back pass gave Kevin Huerter an open look from 3-point range.
The shot rimmed out, and Middleton quickly ripped offthe next 13 points to suddenly push the Milwaukee lead to 60-45.
Young broke up the one-man onslaught with a driving basket, but Middleton responded with a 3-pointer that gave him 16 straight points.
Middleton finished the quarter with 23 points, nearly outscoring the Hawks all by himself. Atlanta had 29 points in the period as Milwaukee headed to the final quarter with a commanding 91-72 lead.
Jrue Holiday added 27 points for the Bucks.
Cam Reddish, who missed much of the season with an Achilles injury, came off the bench to spark the Hawks. He scored 21 points — making six of seven 3-pointers — as the Hawks sliced a 22-point deficit down to six in the closing minutes.
But the Bucks finished it off, rekindling memories of the franchise’s early years when Milwaukee quickly became the center of the NBA world with a team led by two of the game’s greatest players, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson.
In Milwaukee’s third season in the league, the duo led the team to its only NBA title in 1971. The Bucks returned to finals three years later, only to lose to the Boston Celtics in seven games.
Robertson retired after that season and Abdul-Jabbar was dealt a year later to the Los Angeles Lakers, ending Milwaukee’s run as an elite franchise.
Now, the Bucks are back in the finals with a whole new group of stars. As they proved In the last two games against the Hawks, they’re certainly more than the Greek Freak.
With Antetokounmpo sidelined for the last two games of the series with a hyperextended left knee, the Bucks turned to his supporting cast to finish off Atlanta. Brooks Lopez had 33 points in Game 5, and three other starters scored at least 22.
Middleton and Holiday carried the load in the deciding game.
Despite a disappointing finish, the Hawks stamped themselves as a future force with a young group that knocked off the New York Knicks and t he top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers to surprisingly advance to the conference finals.
Mired at 14-20 when they fired coach Lloyd Pierce shortly before the All-Star break, Atlanta went on a run under interim coach Nate McMillan that carried the Hawks to the playoffs for the first time since 2017.
The Hawks didn’t stop there, advancing to the conference finals for only the second time with Young leading the way.
After missing Games 4 and 5 with a bone bruise in his right foot, Young was cleared to play shortly before the game. The crowd went nuts when he was the introduced as the final member of the starting five.
“He’s baaaaack!” the public-address announcer screamed.
But, clearly, he wasn’t all the way back.
After a nearly week-long layoff, Young seemed tentative and all out of sorts. Sure, he flashed a bit of his old form on a couple of bursts to the basket, but five points in the first half was not at all what the Hawks had come to expect from their breakout star.
Young finished with just 14 points on 4-of-17 shooting.