The Milwaukee Bucks advanced to their first N.B.A. finals since 1974 after defeating the Atlanta Hawks, 118-107, in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals Saturday night to take the series, four games to two. They will face the Phoenix Suns in the N.B.A. finals starting Tuesday.
They were without the services of Giannis Antetokounmpo, their best player, who had injured his left knee in Game 4, appearing to deal a significant blow to the Bucks’ chances of winning the series.
Instead, the Bucks soldiered on without him, leaning on a supporting cast led by forward Khris Middleton and guard Jrue Holiday. The Hawks’ best player, Trae Young, who had missed Games 4 and 5 because of a bone bruise in his right foot, struggled in the loss after being a gametime decision on Saturday.
The crowd at State Farm Arena was subdued throughout most of the game, as the Bucks burst out of the gate with a 15-4 run and led the whole game. But Atlanta fans came back to life in the fourth quarter, as the Hawks made a furious run to cut a 22 point second-half lead to 6 with 3:40 left.
The series was a roller coaster and mostly uncompetitive. The Hawks struck first with a surprising Game 1 win on the road, 116-113. Young scored 48 points. The Bucks, as they did against Kevin Durant and the Nets in the second round, struggled to defend Atlanta on pick-and-rolls. This allowed Young to get into the paint easily and create offense for the Hawks.
In Game 2, Milwaukee thumped Atlanta, 125-91, led by Antetokounmpo’s 25 points in 29 minutes. In the following contest, the Bucks seemed to take control of the series with a 113-102 win, this time with Middleton’s 38 points and 11 rebounds leading the way.
It was in the second half of Game 4 that Antetokounmpo hurt his knee, and the Hawks, taking advantage of the bewildered Bucks, ripped off a blowout of their own to even the best-of-seven series at two games apiece. The win came without Young, raising Atlanta’s hopes that its upstart campaign could carry the Hawks to the franchise’s first finals since 1961.
Antetokounmpo, a two-time Most Valuable Player Award winner and one of the biggest stars in the N.B.A., was in the midst of the best playoff run of his career after a series of disappointing ones. He is averaging 28.2 points, 12.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game in the playoffs. While he has struggled shooting from the field and at the free-throw line, he has mostly kept his game where it is most successful: at the rim for dunks, as he did during the regular season. In the postseason, 63.3 percent of Antetokounmpo’s shots have been within 10 feet of the hoop. During the regular season, that number was 62.4 percent.
The Bucks regrouped in Game 5 without him, dominating the Hawks from start to finish to go up 3-2 in the series. Brook Lopez scored a playoff career-high 33 points in the 123-112 win.
The stakes have been high for Milwaukee this postseason. Despite Antetokounmpo’s regular-season brilliance over the past five years, the Bucks had not made the finals. Antetokounmpo’s poor shooting was an issue, as defenders packed the paint to goad him into shooting from the outside or dribbling into traffic.
Mike Budenholzer, who has coached Milwaukee for the last three seasons, has been criticized for the contrast between the Bucks’ regular-season performances and playoff failures, raising speculation that he is coaching for his job this year.
But the critics were silenced, at least temporarily, on Saturday night. The Bucks will head to Phoenix for Game 1 of the finals, four wins away from a title. Once again, Milwaukee will have to contend with an elite scorer in Devin Booker, as well as an expert in the pick-and-roll, point guard Chris Paul. And the Bucks may be without Antetokounmpo, whose availability for the series is uncertain.