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Bucks step up to beat Hawks without Giannis Antetokounmpo for 3-2 lead in Eastern Conference finals

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MILWAUKEE — With injuries sidelining Giannis Antetokounmpo on Milwaukee’s bench and Trae Young on Atlanta’s, somebody else — multiple somebodies — had to fill vacated starring roles.

The Bucks did it by committee with Brook Lopez, Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton and a breakout playoff performance.

Milwaukee defeated Atlanta 123-112 in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday. The Bucks have a 3-2 series lead and are one victory from playing in the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974 — when Larry Costello was the coach and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson played for Milwaukee.

"It's exciting," Lopez said. "But it's obviously not done. We need to bottle that energy and effort that we had tonight and do it again in two days."

Game 6 is Saturday in Atlanta (8:30 p.m. ET, TNT).

Lopez had his best offensive game of the 2021 postseason with a playoff career-high 33 points on 14-for-18 shooting, plus seven rebounds, four blocks and two steals. Middleton, a model of stability, delivered 26 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists, and Holiday scored 25 points and delivered 13 assists.

"It's easy when you have guys like Jrue and Khris who are making plays like that," Lopez said. "They draw so much attention, command so much attention and rightfully so. They know how to make that extra pass, that play, whoever it is, whether it's me diving or Bobby or Pat in the corner, P.J. (Tucker), they know how to make that play."

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Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer settled on Bobby Portis as Antetokounmpo’s replacement. A fan favorite at Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum with chants of "Bobby, Bobby!" filling the arena, Portis in his first playoff start had playoff career-high 22 points with eight rebounds and three steals.

"I worked out yesterday in the gym, and they were kind of hinting around to it, but I didn't really think I was going to start," Portis said. "Then came to shootaround this morning and we did our film and Coach said, 'You're going to start.' I said, "Cool, I'm ready to go out and start."

Those four combined for 106 of Milwaukee’s points. It won’t get much recognition, but P.J. Tucker’s 11 rebounds and effort were important.

Just as Atlanta won a game without its star (Young didn’t play in Atlanta’s Game 4 victory with a bone bruise on his foot), the Bucks found a way without Antetokounmpo, who hyperextended his left knee in Tuesday’s game.

It was a group effort from start to finish at a time when the Bucks needed it.

Milwaukee started strong, built a 30-10 lead in the first quarter and kept Atlanta at a double-digit buffer most of game. Known for their comebacks in the playoffs, the Hawks trailed just 65-59 early in the third quarter. But that’s as close as they got the remainder of the game.

Brook Lopez slams home two of his game-high 33 points.
Brook Lopez slams home two of his game-high 33 points.

Even without Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee dominated inside, outscoring the Hawks 66-36 in the paint. Known for his ability to stretch the floor with his 3-point shot, Lopez went back to his center roots and hammered Atlanta at the rim with 26 of his points in the paint, including six on offensive rebound putbacks.

"Just they were more physical," Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan said. "They hit us in the mouth, and we just did not recover from that. They were aggressive. 28 points in the paint in the first quarter. No defense on the ball, no defense off the ball, weak side help was not there. They were the more physical, more aggressive team from start to finish tonight."

The Bucks were 6-5 without Antetokounmpo this season. But playing in a regular season game a star down isn’t the same as doing it with a trip to the NBA Finals at stake. Budenholzer believed in his team.

"There's some confidence gained from the way that the group has been able to play both defensively and offensively," Budenholzer said of playing minus their All-NBA forward. "And I think the group has been together awhile. That gives them some confidence. There's obviously things that may be different emphasis, different things, and there's things that will be similar that we've got to do at a high level, and at the same time let guys just be themselves."

Bogdan Bogdanovic had another strong game (28 points, 7-for-16 on 3-pointers) for Atlanta, and John Collins had 19 points and eight rebounds. Lou Williams (17 points) didn’t have the same magic he had in Game 4 with six turnovers.

Now, it’s Atlanta’s turn to see if it can force a Game 7.

"There's no tricks or anything that's needed," McMillan said. "You've got to be the aggressors. You've got to be the team that executes for 48 minutes and do what they did tonight. We've done that before. So we know exactly where we are."

Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bucks beat Hawks without Giannis for 3-2 lead in East finals