The Bucks are going to the Finals for the first time since 1974 after a 118–107 win against the Hawks on Saturday. Milwaukee finished off Atlanta in six games, winning the last two bouts of the series without two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks will now face the Suns for the NBA title.
Here are three thoughts on Milwaukee’s win over Atlanta…
Khris Middleton was the best player on the floor
With Giannis out and Hawks star Trae Young hobbled with a foot injury, Khris Middleton more than capably filled the superstar void in Game 6. Middleton scored 32 points Saturday, including 23 in a third quarter the Bucks won 44–29. Atlanta had no answer for Mid, who at one point went on a 16–0 run by himself.
Middleton is often questioned as Giannis’s second star. Is he good enough to be the second best player on a title team? Saturday, he proved he was capable of being the best player in an elimination game. He took advantage of Atlanta’s weak perimeter defense, and found success both as a ball handler and screener.
A two-time All-Star, Middleton has now had huge games in all three rounds of the playoffs. He scored 27 to open Milwaukee’s sweep of Miami, and followed up that performance with his massive 38-point outing in Game 6 of the Nets series, a night the Bucks were facing elimination. Time and time again Middleton has delivered in big moments for Milwaukee. Whether or not he receives the same plaudits as other players of his caliber is ultimately irrelevant. What’s important is Middleton is playing some of his best basketball headed into the Finals. And with or without Giannis on the floor, he’s proved to be a worthy closer.
The Hawks finally looked young
Atlanta was the surprise team of this postseason. The Hawks ended the Knicks' storybook run and sent the Sixers into a tailspin. They finally looked their age against an expectations-laden Bucks team. Atlanta was very close to crashing the Finals, and not cashing in on the opportunity may haunt this team all summer. The Hawks blew a seven-point lead at home in Game 3, then dropped the last two games of the series despite the absence of Milwaukee’s best player.
Atlanta really felt like the younger team in Game 6. The Bucks came out with better energy at the start, and their execution looked more crisp. The Hawks fell into some bad habits on offense, and ultimately couldn’t get enough stops down the stretch.
Young’s injury certainly didn’t help matters. Ice Trae shot only 4-of-17 from the field, and didn’t hit a single shot from outside of the paint, missing all six of his threes. He was clearly hampered by the bone bruise in his right foot suffered after stepping on an official’s foot in Game 4. With Young not able to recreate his on-ball magic for large stretches of the game, Atlanta’s offense struggled, and the game really only drew close because of an out-of-body shooting night from Cam Reddish.
If there’s solace in the loss for Atlanta, it’s that the team's young core should be together for years to come. Still, there are no guarantees in the NBA, and coming so close to the Finals doesn’t guarantee you’ll get close again.
All eyes on Giannis
With the Finals matchup set, all the attention now shifts to Giannis’s left knee. He suffered a hyperextension after an ugly collision in Game 4. Yahoo’s Chris Haynes reported Friday that Antetokounmpo could have been ready for a possible Game 7 if the East Finals extended that far. But even if Giannis is able to go in Game 1 of the Finals, how effective will he be? As resilient as Milwaukee has been this postseason, the Bucks will almost certainly need the former MVP to be something close to full strength to bring home their first championship since 1971.
The Finals begin Tuesday.