NBA playoffs: Khris Middleton leads Giannis-less Bucks to first NBA Finals since 1974

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For the first time since the days of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Milwaukee Bucks are headed to the NBA Finals.

The Bucks defeated the Atlanta Hawks 118-107 on Saturday to win the Eastern Conference finals in six games, despite missing Giannis Antetokounmpo (knee) for the last two-and-a-half games. Milwaukee will now face the Phoenix Suns for their first championship since 1971.

Game 1 of the Finals is scheduled for 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday, broadcasted by ABC.

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In Antetokounmpo's stead, Khris Middleton upgraded from sidekick to hero. The Bucks veteran went off for 31 points on 10-of-22 shooting (4-of-10 from deep), seven assists, four rebounds and three steals with 23 of those points coming in an incredible third quarter:

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Jrue Holiday was the Bucks' other player to step up big, scoring 27 points with nine rebounds, nine assists and four steals.

The Bucks led for the entire game, racing out to a 15-4 lead in the first quarter, then blowing the game wide open in the third. They led by as much as 24 points early in the fourth quarter, but still had to hold off an Atlanta rally that cut the deficit to as little as six points.

Bucks finally break through

Since Antetokounmpo ascended to stardom, the Bucks have cultivated — fairly or unfairly — a reputation for regular season success and postseason failure. 

That narrative became fully formed in 2019, when the top-seeded 60-22 Bucks lost four straight to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals. A five-game elimination at the hands of the Miami Heat followed in next season's Eastern Conference semifinals.

The Bucks entered last offseason at a crossroads, with many openly wondering if Antetokounmpo could be on the way out if the Bucks couldn't break through in the East. He put those concerns to rest by signing a supermax extension in December, but the hard part still remained. And now, as it turns out, the team didn't even need him to put away a Hawks team that looked dangerous at the beginning of the series.

Was Trae Young healthy?

News of Young’s availability was enough to make the Hawks 3.5-point favorites at BetMGM entering Game 6, but he didn’t exactly play like the offensive dynamo he was before sustaining a foot injury in Game 3.

Young finished with 14 points on 4-of-17 shooting, never really looking right after missing two games. The Hawks can hardly complain about injuries with the Bucks without a two-time MVP, but it's still a significant what-if for the team's fans.

Hawks' surprising run comes to an end

The Hawks might have looked outmatched toward the end of the series, but there is still plenty to like about one of the NBA's rising teams. 

Young looks legitimately ahead of schedule as a franchise superstar at the age of 22. The Hawks have managed to surround Young with help young (John Collins, Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish) and old (Lou Williams, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari). The Hawks defeated an upstart New York Knicks team then took out the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers despite missing De'Andre Hunter, arguably their second-most important player, for the entire postseason.

Plenty can change at a moment's notice in the NBA, but it's hard not to like what Atlanta has going right now.

Will Giannis Antetokounmpo be ready for the NBA Finals?

No question looms bigger over the NBA Finals than the health of Antetokounmpo, who hyperextended his left knee in Game 4 and has not played since.

The good news for the Bucks is Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes reported Friday that there was a belief Antetokounmpo would have suited up for a Game 7 if the Hawks had come out on top Saturday. Game 1 of the NBA Finals is obviously a smidge less serious than a do-or-die Game 7, so winning in six might allow the Bucks to be more cautious with their star.

If Antetokounmpo is ready to go, the Bucks will be the team closest to full strength the Suns have seen in the playoffs. 

So far, Phoenix's path has been through the Los Angeles Lakers with Anthony Davis fighting a groin injury, the Denver Nuggets without Jamal Murray and the Los Angeles Clippers without Kawhi Leonard. With Antetokounmpo back in the lineup, the only Bucks injury of note is Donte DiVincenzo, who has been out since May with an ankle injury.

Of course, even facing opponents missing stars, the Suns have been more good than lucky. Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton have all shown out at different times, while Monty Williams has operated the team like a Coach of the Year winner.

Sure, there's no LeBron James or Stephen Curry, but this figures to be as quality a Finals as you could hope for in a season that has felt like it's bursting at the seams at times. At least one Wisconsin Badgers alum and Arizona Cardinals star is happy:

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