NBA playoffs 2021: Middleton carries Bucks to first Finals since 1974

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After scoring just five points in the first half, Middleton out-scored the entire Hawks team 13-0 over a two-minute span early in the second half on the way to a 23-point third period and 32 points in the game.

With Giannis Antetokounmpo missing another game thanks to a hyperextended left knee, it was Middleton who stepped up and led Milwaukee to their first NBA Finals since 1974.

“Khris caught a streak there in the third quarter, and particularly coming out to start it,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer told reporters. “So I think that was the turning point in the game.”

Though Middleton had a couple of poor shooting games in the Hawks series and was not in the offensive flow in the first half Saturday, his coach had no doubt he would come through eventually.

“You know, he’s a bucket-getter,” Budenholzer said. “He’s just got such a great overall package, and I think he’s just an underrated playmaker. He’s an underrated passer.

“But it’s all built off him just being a great, great shooter. So any time he can shoot, I think he’s got the ultimate green light. He can pass it, he can shoot it, he can do a little bit of everything.

“I love the way he competes and he’s there. You know, he’s been special. We’ll need more of that going forward.”

Regardless of Antetokounmpo’s status going forward, Middleton will be a key factor in the NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns.

For a player who has experienced one disappointment after another in his first few seasons with the team, getting over the hump on Saturday was something special.

“It’s been a long journey but it’s been a great journey – it’s been worth it,” Middleton said. “We put ourselves in position to win the NBA Finals after winning 15 games in our first year here.

“Several years not making the playoffs to the last two years thinking we had a chance and we just didn’t do enough, and now we’re here.

“It’s what we worked for, and I’m extremely happy that we’re still playing.”

Though the Bucks had some margin for error with a 3-2 series lead entering Saturday’s game, it was Middleton who took the lead in ensuring they did not need to use that cushion, and his team-mates were grateful.

“At the end of the day, Khris carried us,” Jrue Holiday told reporters. “He put us on his shoulders. I’m riding with him right to the Finals.

“Khris is the heart of this team and Giannis is the soul of this team and without them, we really wouldn’t be here.”

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