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 in a decisive third quarter that carried the Bucks to a 118-107 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.
“It’s sweet," said Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer, who previously guided the Hawks. "These guys have put the work in all year. They deserve to go to the finals. I couldn’t be more proud of them. I love coaching them. We’ve got more work to do.”
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 off the next 13 points to suddenly push the Milwaukee edge 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.
“My teammates and my coaches, they told me to keep being aggressive," Middleton said. "I love it. Each one of these guys, they work every single day. Everybody stays ready. Everybody stays locked in. We all play for each other. And that’s all you can ask for.”
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 by 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 the 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, the charismatic point guard was cleared to play shortly before the tipoff Saturday night. 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 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.
Milwaukee seized the momentum and never looked back. Young finished with just 14 points on 4-of-17 shooting.
Bucks: With the Hawks focused on doing a better job in the lane, Lopez was held to 13 points. ... Bobby Portis had 12 points and nine rebounds in his second straight start for Antetokounmpo.
Hawks: Huerter, the surprising star of Atlanta’s Game 7 win over Philadelphia, closed the season with a very tough night. He had only five points on 2-of-10 shooting. ... Bogdan Bogdanovic scored 20 points. ... Atlanta finished 38 of 92 (41.3%) from the field.
Neither team seemed capable of winning in the first half.
Atlanta made only 15 of 49 shots (30.6%), including 4 of 16 from beyond the 3-point arc, with nine turnovers. The Bucks weren’t much better, connecting on 17 of 44 (38.6%) overall and just 5 of 19 outside the stripe. Milwaukee turned it over 10 times, split evenly between Middleton and Holiday.
Appropriately, the half ended with Atlanta’s Clint Capela missing right under the basket off a lob pass from Bogdanovic, sending the Bucks to the locker room with a 47-43 lead.
PLAYING WITH THE LEAD
Amazingly, there were no lead changes over the final three games of the series.
The Hawks never trailed in Game 4, romping to a 110-88 victory. Milwaukee returned the favor in Game 5, building a 20-point lead in the first quarter and staying out front all the way in a 123-112 triumph.
It was more of the same in the deciding game, which the Bucks led from start to finish.