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Milwaukee Bucks close out Atlanta Hawks to advance to NBA Finals for first time since 1974

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ATLANTA — Nothing that happened in the first half indicated Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton had a scoring flurry coming.

The Bucks guard-forward had a quiet five points and a loud five turnovers by halftime.

Middleton scored 16 of his 23 third-quarter points in a four-minute stretch of the third as the Bucks extended a two-point lead into a 19-point margin against the Atlanta Hawks.

That was too much for the Hawks to overcome even at home and even with Trae Young playing after missing the two previous games with a bone bruise in his right foot.

Milwaukee defeated Atlanta 118-107 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, earning a spot in the NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns.

"Just want to win," Middleton said. "That's all it is. I don't care how many points I have. Stats go out the window. Even thought I had a great third quarter, I told Jrue (Holiday) I was struggling (earlier in the game). 'You’ve got to get the ball and make something happen because right now I just don't have it.'

"That's what it's about, everybody on this team, we don't care about who has the ball, who scores, who does this and that. We just do want it takes to win and that's all you want."

Game 1 of the NBA Finals is Tuesday in Phoenix (9 p.m. ET, ABC).

Milwaukee Bucks guard Jrue Holiday reacts after a basket during the first quarter of Game 6 against the Atlanta Hawks.
Milwaukee Bucks guard Jrue Holiday reacts after a basket during the first quarter of Game 6 against the Atlanta Hawks.

The Bucks reached 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 a long time coming for the franchise, for Middleton, for Giannis Antetokounmpo and for Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer.

"Just so impressed with the resilience of the group, the character of the group," Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. "They just have a focus and an edge that's put us in a good place, put us in an opportunity to keep playing. And so you've got to deal with all those emotions, everything that goes into each round and this group has been able to do that. It's impressive but we've got more to do."

Antetokounmpo missed his second consecutive game with a hyperextended left knee sustained in Game 4. Milwaukee won the next two games without him, relying on Middleton, Jrue Holiday, Brook Lopez, Bobby Portis and an unexpected performance from former Hawks guard Jeff Teague.

Middleton finished with a game-high 32 points, Holiday had 27 points, nine assists and nine rebounds and Portis followed up his playoff career-high 22 points in Game 5 with 12 points and nine rebounds. Brook Lopez added 13 points, Teague had 11 and Pat Connaughton had 13.

"The guys in that locker room and coaching staff, the organization, front office, owners, the countless hours that we've put in together, put in individually," Connaughton said. "To have it all come to fruition to fight through COVID, injuries, all sorts of adversity, bumps, bruises, whatever it might be, the resiliency that this team showed speaks to our character and that's why we've been fortunate to put ourselves in a position to compete for the NBA Finals."

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The Bucks had the roster necessary to win games without Antetokounmpo in the conference finals. His status for the Finals is undetermined.

While Young played in Game 6, it’s unlikely he was 100%. He had 14 points and nine assists but was just 4-for-17 from the field, including 0-for-6 on 3-pointers. He did not have his explosive quickness.

Cam Reddish, who missed months with an Achilles injury and returned in the conference finals, had a team-high 21 points, and Bodgan Bodganovic scored 20 points.

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The Hawks were a surprising playoff team, but they have talent and play with an admirable quality: they don’t give up. They had memorable 18-point and 26-point comebacks against Philadelphia in the second round. Even in Game 6 against the Bucks, the Hawks trailed 100-80 with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter and were down 107-101 with 3:41 remaining.

This was a team that was 14-20, fired its coach Lloyd Pierce in early March and replaced him with Nate McMillan, the interim coach who made the Hawks better.

"They've been a great group all season long," McMillan said. "It was a huge challenge for them once Coach Pierce was let go. I challenged those guys to be better, to do better, to sacrifice, to commit to each other, and they did.

"It just shows that, when you get a group of guys that's working together for the same common goal you can win games. What they did this season luck wasn't involved. It was hard work. It was sacrificing. It was committing to each other. It was trusting each other, and the effort was there every single night."

With Young, Reddish, Bogdanovic, John Collins (13 points, 11 rebounds), Kevin Huerter, Clint Capela (14 points, nine rebounds), Danilo Gallinari (13 points, eight rebounds) and DeAndre Hunter, who was out with an injury, the Hawks will have a say in the Eastern Conference next season.

"Yeah, this could be the start of something that is consistent. I know the organization," McMillan said. "(Owner) Tony (Ressler) just talked about his commitment to this team and this organization to continue to win. They want to win here. He wants to build a winner. He's willing to do whatever it takes. That was his message to the team."

Will McMillan be back with the team? He said he will sit down with management soon and have that discussion.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bucks hold off Hawks in Game 6 to advance to NBA Finals