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Balance, grit have put Bucks on verge of first title in 50 years

Balance, grit have put Bucks on verge of first title in 50 years

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Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, left, celebrates with Khris Middleton, center, and P.J. Tucker during the second half of Game 5 on Saturday night in Phoenix.

MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo believes it’s the tenacity of the Bucks that has Milwaukee a game away from its first championship in a half century.

That persistence has enabled the Bucks to rally from a 2-0 deficit in the NBA Finals. The Bucks lead the Phoenix Suns 3-2 as they return home to seek a potential title-clinching victory in Game 6 on Tuesday.

“I feel like we don’t stop,” Antetokounmpo said. “I’ve been a part of different teams. Usually when you’re down 15 or 16 or whatever, down 0-2 or whatever the case might be, you kind of like stop. You kind of like, you kind of stop competing in a way. But I feel like this team, we don’t do that.”

The Bucks took the finals lead with a 123-119 Game 5 victory in Phoenix that showcased their impressive balance.

Milwaukee averaged 120.1 points per game in the regular season to become the NBA’s highest-scoring team since 1983-84, when the Denver Nuggets and San Antonio Spurs both exceeded that average. But they’ve pulled ahead in this series by delivering memorable defensive plays.

In their 109-103 Game 3 victory, the Bucks owned a two-point lead when Antetokounmpo blocked a dunk attempt by former UA Wildcat Deandre Ayton with just over a minute left. They were still up only two when Jrue Holiday stole the ball from Chris Paul to spark a fastbreak that resulted in a Khris Middleton layup with 27.2 seconds remaining.

Holiday delivered again Saturday after the Suns slashed a 108-94 fourth-quarter deficit to a single point. Holiday stripped the ball from Devin Booker, dribbled downcourt and threw a lob to Antetokounmpo, who dunked while getting fouled with 13.5 seconds left.

“Honestly, it was great team defense,” Holiday said. “I feel like we knew Booker wanted to take that last shot and played great defense on him and made him turn his back, and he turned right into me. I guess I was just in the right place at the right time.”

The Bucks paid a heavy price to acquire Holiday as they tried to take the next step after posting the NBA’s best regular-season record in 2018-19 and 2019-20 but failing to reach the finals each of those years.

Holiday responded by earning first-team All-Defensive honors. He’s played outstanding defense throughout the finals but struggled to shoot before coming through with 27 points and 13 assists Saturday.

His presence alongside Antetokounmpo and Middleton enables the Bucks to win games in a variety of ways.

The Bucks have scored at least 120 points in six playoff games, but they probably never would have gotten this far without gutting out an 86-83 Game 3 victory over the Brooklyn Nets after falling behind 2-0 in that second-round series. They shot 57.5% on Saturday but also made the game-clinching steal after Phoenix rallied.

“I do think that we always have our mindset on defense,” Holiday said. “But when we get rolling on both ends, I feel like that’s where we kind of get into our groove.”

They’re in that groove now and are a win away from accomplishing something this franchise hasn’t done since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson helped deliver Milwaukee a championship in 1971.

“But the job is not done,” Antetokounmpo said. “We have to realize that. We have got to stay in the present.”

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