Even without two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks figured out a way to end their recent habit of slow starts.
Now they’re just one win away from finishing off the Atlanta Hawks and earning their first NBA Finals berth in nearly half a century.
Brook Lopez scored a playoff career-high 33 points to lead a balanced attack and the Bucks never trailed in a 123-112 victory over the Hawks on Thursday night that gave them a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference finals.
“It’s exciting. But it’s obviously not done,” Lopez said. “We need to bottle that energy and effort we had tonight and do it again in two days.”
The Bucks haven’t reached the NBA Finals since 1974. They won their lone NBA title in 1971.
Milwaukee regained the lead in the series by grabbing a 30-10 lead Thursday and never trailing. That marked a notable change after the Bucks erased an early 15-point deficit in a 113-102 Game 3 victory and never led in a 110-88 Game 4 loss.
“It was one of the main priorities, just to be aggressive out of the gate, be the aggressor, be more aggressive than they were,” Bucks guard Jrue Holiday said. “We felt like those games in Atlanta, whether it was energy from the crowd or whatever it was, they swung and punched us in the mouth. We didn’t want to take any chances. We wanted to come out strong and hit first.”
Game 6 is Saturday in Atlanta, with the winner of the series facing the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals.
Four of the Bucks’ starters had at least 22 points: Lopez, Khris Middleton (26), Holiday (25) and Bobby Portis (22). Middleton also had 13 rebounds and eight assists. Holiday had 13 assists and six rebounds.
They all stepped up their game while Antetokounmpo watched from the bench with a hyperextended left knee. Each team was missing its biggest star, as Atlanta’s Trae Young sat out a second straight game due to a bone bruise in his right foot.
Young got hurt when he accidentally stepped on an official’s foot along the sideline in Game 3. Antetokounmpo landed awkwardly after trying to block Clint Capela’s dunk attempt in Game 4.
Just as the Hawks’ role players delivered with Young sidelined in Game 4, Antetokounmpo’s teammates came through Thursday.
Portis took Antetokounmpo’s spot in the starting lineup and had the Fiserv Forum fans chanting “Bobby! Bobby!” on multiple occasions, continuing something that started during Milwaukee’s Game 2 blowout victory. Portis’ 22 points were a playoff career high.
“Knowing the situation we were in, one of the best players in the world went down on our team,” Portis said. “So other guys had to step up. Guys stepped up and played their role to a ‘T.’ ”
Bogdan Bogdanovic led the Hawks with 28 points. Atlanta also got 19 points each from John Collins and Danilo Gallinari, and 17 from Lou Williams.
The Bucks never trailed and led by as many as 20 in the first quarter, making most of their shots and getting second-chance opportunities on their rare misses. The game was nearly eight minutes old by the time Cam Reddish got Atlanta’s first defensive rebound.
“They were the more physical, more aggressive team from start to finish tonight,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said.
Milwaukee led 36-22 after a first quarter in which the Bucks outscored the Hawks 28-8 in the paint. They ended the game with a 66-36 edge in the paint.
Atlanta cut the lead to 65-59 when Bogdanovic hit a 3-pointer to open the third-quarter scoring, but that’s as close as the Hawks would get in the second half.
“We didn’t match their intensity, their energy,” Gallinari said. “We definitely need to start the game better.”
This marked the second straight game in this series without any lead changes. The Hawks never trailed in Game 4.
Hawks: McMillan said he expects Young to be a game-time decision on Saturday. … Capela was in the starting lineup after being listed as questionable before the game due to inflammation in his right eye. Capela took an inadvertent elbow to the face from Milwaukee’s Sam Merrill late in Game 4. He had six points and eight rebounds.
Bucks: During his pregame availability, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer offered no update on when Antetokounmpo might be able to return. Budenholzer said Antetokounmpo did some work in the weight room and training area but wasn’t with his teammates on the court Thursday morning. … The Bucks made their first two 3-point attempts but missed their next 12 and finished 9 of 29.