Khris Middleton showed once again that the Milwaukee Bucks have more than one player capable of taking over a game.
He did it Sunday night at the best possible time.
Middleton scored 20 of his playoff career high-tying 38 points in the fourth quarter, leading the Bucks to a 113-102 victory over the Atlanta Hawks for a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference finals.
“What he did today was unreal,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “He was unbelievable. Carried the team at the end. … What I saw today was greatness. Simple as that.”
Trae Young scored 35 points for Atlanta but was slowed in the final period. He stepped on an official’s foot late in the third and injured his right ankle. He will have an MRI on the ankle on Monday.
“It’s hurting. It’s frustrating,” Young said, adding the injury impacted “my blow-by speed.”
Game 4 is Tuesday night in Atlanta.
Middleton scored 10 points in the decisive run in the fourth that gave Milwaukee the lead. He had 11 rebounds and seven assists.
“I just finally got them to go,” Middleton said. “I’ve been struggling some with the ball going in the basket. Finally they started dropping for me at the right time. I’m thankful for that.”
Antetokounmpo, who often has the spotlight for Milwaukee, had 33 points. The Bucks trailed most of the game before surging in the fourth quarter. Atlanta led 95-88 before Middleton made his first of three 3-pointers during the 15-3 run for a 103-98 lead.
“Just being around him a lot, he starts to see it go in, he starts to feel good, he gets in a rhythm in a lot of ways,” said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer before adding “I’m just glad he’s on our side.”
After never leading in a 125-91 Game 2 loss, the Hawks were eager for a better start in their first home game of the series. Turnovers by Middleton and Antetokounmpo led to dunks by Clint Capela, and Kevin Huerter added a 3-pointer for a 7-0 lead.
The Hawks stretched the advantage to 13 points. Antetokounmpo was held to five first-quarter points but regained his scoring form in the second period. He had 11 points in the period as the Bucks finally pulled even at 56-all on a 3-pointer by Pat Connaughton with 12 seconds remaining in the half.
The Bucks took their first lead at 82-80 on a basket by Bobby Portis Jr. with 1:47 remaining in the third. A 3-pointer by Danilo Gallinari, who had 18 points, gave Atlanta an 85-83 lead at the end of the period.
Middleton opened the final period by sinking a 3 that signaled the start of his big period. He went on to outscore the Hawks, who had 17 points, by himself in the period.
“He was really going from everywhere,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said.
Bucks: Antetokounmpo was on the injury report as probable with left calf tightness but did not appear to be affected by the injury. He had 11 rebounds and played 41 minutes. “I think it’s in a good place,” Budenholzer said. “He’s going to have to stay on top of it.” … Portis scored 15 points.
Hawks: Young remained seated on the court for a few seconds after his ankle injury before heading to the locker room. He returned with 8:44 remaining in the game. … F Cam Reddish was available but did not play after scoring 11 points in Game 2 in his return from an Achilles tendon injury. It was his first action since Feb. 21. McMillan said he was not yet ready to move Reddish into a more prominent role.
COUNTING TO 10
Hawks fans followed the recent trend of counting Antetokounmpo’s time at the free throw line. The fans usually counted past 10 before he launched an attempt, but no 10-second violation was called.
Fans cheered when he missed each of his first two free throws in the first quarter. He threw an airball from the line in the second period, again earning cheers from the sellout crowd.
Antetokounmpo was only 6 of 13 for the game.
Game by game, the Hawks are following the same script of their Eastern Conference semifinal series win over Philadelphia. Just as in that series, the Hawks split two games on the road before losing their first home game. They won the series in seven games.
“We’ve been in this position before and we’ll be ready for Game 4,” Gallinari said.