ATLANTA — The Milwaukee Bucks were an instant success in the NBA, winning a championship in just their third season and reaching the finals again three years later.
Nearly a half-century later, they finally have a shot at another title.
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 the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974. Game 1 against the West champion Suns is Tuesday night in Phoenix.
The Bucks didn’t even need Giannis Antetokounmpo to lock up their spot. The two-time MVP missed his second straight game with a knee injury, but Middleton & Co. had his back.
Jrue Holiday added 27 points and four other players scored in double figures.
Antetokounmpo cheered them on from the bench.
“One of the biggest things we did the last two games was play for him,” said Pat Connaughton, who had 13 points and eight rebounds. “We do have a true team.”
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 Milwaukee’s 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 Milwaukee 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.”
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.
“The message was, `No regrets. We don’t want any regrets. …. Empty the tank,”’ said Nate McMillan, the Hawks interim coach. “And they did.”
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.
The duo led the team to its only NBA title in 1971. The Bucks returned to finals in ’74, 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 a glamour 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. Brook 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.
“These guys have put the work in all year. They deserve to go to the finals,” said Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer, who previously coached the Hawks. “We’ve got more work to do.”
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 McMillan that carried the Hawks to the playoffs for the first time since 2017.
They didn’t stop there, advancing to the conference finals for only the second time with Young leading the way.
“We all understand this is just beginning,” Young said. “It was fun to have this city excited. We want to keep it like that.”
After missing Games 4 and 5 with a bone bruise in his right foot, Young was cleared to play shortly before tipoff Saturday night. The crowd went nuts when the charismatic point guard was 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 14 points on 4-of-17 shooting was not at all what the Hawks had come to expect from their breakout star.
“I just wanted to battle and try to fight through it as much as I could, try to be out there for my team,” Young said. “But it was definitely frustrating not being healthy and not being able to give my full 100%.”
NBA FINALS BOUND
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) July 4, 2021
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. … Jeff Teague, who played for the Hawks when they reached the conference final in 2015, scored 11 points in just over 12 minutes of playing time off Milwaukee’s bench.
Hawks: Huerter, the surprising star of Atlanta’s Game 7 win over Philadelphia, closed the season with 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 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 favour 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.
Emma Raducanu lives to play another day at Wimbledon – The Globe and Mail
Despite all the hype, Emma Raducanu’s first-ever arrival on Centre Court on Monday afternoon took everyone by surprise.
It had been that sort of day to start this year’s Wimbledon. It rained for most of the early afternoon which meant everything was running late. Matches continued under the roof at the big court, but the opener, Novak Djokovic, found himself up against someone who hadn’t gotten the memo. South Korea’s Kwon Soon-woo played like he expected to win. If you turned your head just so, it seemed for a moment like he could.
By the time Djokovic got Kwon under control, three hours had passed and the crowd was in need of relief. When Raducanu emerged onto Centre Court 10 minutes later, there were more people in line for the toilets than there were in the stands.
Sensing the shambling nature of her entrance, the remainers leapt up to give her a standing ovation. Raducanu waved her hand at them distractedly.
This is what happens when you put too much emphasis on something that’s difficult to predict, like the scheduling of live outdoor events or tennis careers.
Raducanu, who won a surprise U.S. Open last fall and then nothing since, plays like someone who feels every eye in the place on her. Between points, she wanders off to the back wall to have a little chat with herself. During breaks, she stares ahead blankly while breathing in and out hard enough to light a fire. You just know this is a person who has really gotten into meditation, and not for fun.
Who could blame her? Right now, there may be no young athlete on Earth who feels more pressure to perform in one particular place.
Raducanu won on Monday because she sort of had to, didn’t she? Which is not to say that she won with much elan. She wore down Belgian puncher Alison Van Uytvanck 6-4, 6-4.
What was it like that first hour? To say the first set was played at a snail’s pace would be a calumny on snails. It’s one thing to play turgid tennis. It’s another to do it on a cool late afternoon at a place where they serve champagne for breakfast. You could see heads around you in the stands nodding.
But having gone through that set-long crucible of boredom, Raducanu perked up in the second. The crowd was back and the air was lighter. Then Van Uytvanck did the neighbourly thing and gave up.
Afterward, Raducanu was more than pleased. She positively glowed. She celebrated like she’d won something that mattered, which I guess she had.
“I felt the support the minute I walked out those doors,” Raducanu said, though she hadn’t really.
“Thank you to everyone who’s been here supporting …” she said, though that wasn’t totally correct either, since she made only a medium-sized dent in this tournament last year.
“ … through the tough part as well.”
Well, that is right.
Since winning the U.S. Open, Raducanu’s career has split into two streams.
First, there is her personal brand. That is rated AAA by multinationals everywhere. Raducanu is that unicorn in sports marketing – an athlete who looks like they were designed in a computer, talks like they are a normal human and emotes like your new best friend. However the tennis turns out, she will make a fortune selling things for as long as she is willing to drag herself onto a court, and probably long after.
Then there’s the tennis. That hasn’t gone so well. Pernicious injuries and false recovery starts have blighted the past nine months. After the worst of it was over on Monday, Raducanu likened it to her gap year (only, I suppose, more painful and more profitable).
This sudden rise and fall has an almost direct parallel with Canadian 2019 U.S. Open winner Bianca Andreescu. Andreescu also introduced herself to people by winning a major and also immediately fell into a thicket of injuries.
The biggest difference between the two stories is that in Canada, we’re willing to wait on our tennis stars. In this country, not so much. The British tabs have spent weeks playing up Raducanu’s Wimbledon – only her second – like it’s her last chance to win this thing.
A national injury watch was launched after she bailed out of her only match at her only warm-up tournament three weeks ago. The all-clear was announced on Saturday.
It’s not clear if Raducanu’s fit to play here, or ‘fit’ to play here. But she’s playing, however slowly.
“Looking forward to hopefully coming out and playing in front of you guys again,” Raducanu said afterward.
Maybe the “hopefully” is a verbal tic. Or maybe she actually meant it like it reads.
This is the unbearable heaviness of being British (and good at tennis and playing at Wimbledon). It is an unfair ask, until you consider the rewards being dangled for success. Win here, however young you are, and you can hire someone to write your obituary now. Unless things go very wrong, the first few paragraphs won’t change much.
What you are struck by is how much Raducanu seems to enjoy interacting with a crowd, but not while she’s playing. Every pro finds her zone, but few need to visibly grind so hard to stay in it. It speaks to a young person who senses keenly – maybe too keenly – what’s at stake.
“I’m going to play like a kid who just loves playing tennis,” Raducanu said over the weekend. She didn’t. She played more like someone trying to squeeze the racket handle to splinters.
But one win means there will be no disaster. If she loses now, she can blame her fitness – which would be more of an explanation than an excuse. The important thing is that she cemented one positive memory on the most recognizable surface in tennis.
So having done the minimum, Raducanu sounded less like a star doing PR and more like what she is – a teenager of remarkable self-possession trying to figure out how to be famous.
Her voice trembled only a little and only once, when she told the crowd, “I’m just so happy to stay another day.”
How Colorado’s patience, intangibles challenged a Tampa offence with no answer – Sportsnet.ca
Over the years of their recent post-season success, which has included a pair of Stanley Cups and appearances in five of the last six Conference Finals, the Tampa Bay Lightning morphed from Team Speed & Skill, to Team Intangibles. They’ve gone from the high-flying offensive team that put others on their heels, to the positionally-sound defensive juggernaut that basically said to their opponents: “See if you can beat us, because we sure as hell won’t beat ourselves.”
And yet again, beat themselves they did not.
Beleaguered as a team can be, Tampa Bay laid back and stayed patient, even when it seemed like their opponent was taking it to them. They’ve had the ultimate trust in Andrei Vasilevskiy, as they should, and it forced opponents to get frustrated, open up, and give them just that extra chance or two that has allowed the Lightning to score and prevail. Like Tiger Woods in his prime, sometimes the size of their well-earned reputation forced others to beat themselves.
Still, at some point you have to be able to create some offence to win games, and as they got more injured, that became a bigger challenge. They didn’t have Brayden Point as they did in Round 1, where a Bolts team on the ropes saw him go directly to the Maple Leafs crease and finish a rebound goal to keep their Cup hopes alive. That obviously hurt them.
Beyond that, though, they didn’t have the depth scoring come through as it has in past years, and they simply couldn’t dial it up on offence and remain as defensively stout as they knew they needed to be against an offensively-gifted Colorado Avalanche team. This time, that was the Avs’ reputation coming into play. Each of Alex Killorn (19:16 TOI per game), Anthony Cirelli (also 19:16), and Brandon Hagel (14:21) played in all 23 playoff games for the Lightning, and they combined for just five goals. Killorn, who scored 25 in the regular season (and had eight in 19 playoff games last year), was blanked with zero. So many players had to turn their attention solely to the little details of defending and positional play, and they excelled at it. But it came at a cost.
I reference Tampa didn’t have that same depth offence as they had in the past, because we all remember the Cup-winning Bolts teams getting huge goals from their third line of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, but it’s worth noting the crucial difference: Colorado wasn’t Dallas and they damn sure weren’t Montreal, not even close. The depth guys on the Lightning this year were faced with a much different chore than Coleman-Gourde-Goodrow. The Avalanche were extremely well-coached throughout this playoff run, and they recognized Tampa Bay’s weakness: they didn’t have another offensive gear to kick it into, so they leaned harder on that struggle.
The Colorado Avalanche all but stole the game plan from Tampa, which was to play smart and positional and choke the life out their opponent, all while saying “The burden of creating offence is on YOU, and you’re going to have to go through every last one of us.”
“Offensively-gifted” or not, the Avs’ scoring was stunted down the stretch of the series, but it was a concession they were willing to make knowing Tampa Bay’s inability to create. Here’s the most telling stat of the series and why I leave the Final fixated on positional patience. If the Bolts were sitting back and waiting for the Avs to get desperate, open up and make mistakes in this series, here’s what they got off the rush:
A hot bowl of nothing.
Over six Stanley Cup Final games the Avalanche had more rush chances than the Bolts by an average of six per game (per Sportlogiq). Six extra rush chances, which in the end was the difference, wasn’t it?
The Stanley Cup game winner comes off a rush where Artturi Lehkonen makes an unbelievable off-hand one-time shot that finds the top corner, which maybe you’d call a bit “lucky” because who knows how many times out of 10 he could place that puck there again. But in very hockey fashion, it’s not luck, because they created enough chances to “get lucky” like that. As it always goes in hockey’s big picture, making your own luck is a reason to love teams like the Avs who create chances in volume.
There’s been much said about the Lightning’s injuries and their inability to be at their best in this Final, but let’s not pretend the Avs were at max capacity. Andre Burakovsky was hurt, Valeri Nichushkin was hurt, and hell, Nazem Kadri had his trainer tie his skates and played in an oven mitt (and scored an OT winner). Sammy Girard was too hurt to get in a game in the Final.
Even with their injuries, the Avalanche played with a maturity the Lightning’s other opponents could not. Colorado got the better of the Bolts to open the series, then Tampa went into full lockdown mode, playing for low scores and hoping to lean on their experience and again, patience. In Games 3, 4, 5, and 6 the Avs scored just 2, 3 (with overtime), 2, and 2 goals. But instead of starting to cheat and stretch and open up to generate more against a goalie that could’ve frustrated the heck out of them, they recognized that for Tampa to win, they’d have to score too.
The Lightning are getting deserved love as “Team Intangibles” this year, and they certainly played great and blocked shots and proved themselves to be warriors. But don’t let the Avs’ demonstration of those same things get lost.
That’s coaching, that’s leadership, that’s playing (and sometimes losing) enough big games to see that forcing plays and taking chances can bury you in the post-season. You have to trust that it will come, you have to trust the plan, and when offensively talented teams get to that point, they’re almost impossible to beat.
This Final was two teams that were “almost impossible to beat,” and as a result, the series was delightful to watch. The Avalanche used all their tough experiences of the years past to give their opponent jack squat in the biggest moments of the season, and they finished the playoffs losing only four times the whole way through.
The Lightning were worthy foes, for sure, but the Avalanche are deserving champions.
What a Stanley Cup Final.
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