However, Milwaukee’s playoff run seemed on the verge of collapse on several occasions. Once again, Coach Mike Budenholzer, in his third season with the Bucks, came under withering scrutiny about his struggles to make adjustments against strong defenses or to come up with more creative ways to use Antetokounmpo. And Khris Middleton, a two-time All-Star, once again faced questions about whether he was a good enough deputy to Antetokounmpo, given his inconsistent shooting in the postseason.
In the semifinal round, the Bucks faced the Nets, who were led by the superstar trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden. Milwaukee lost the first two games of the series, including a 39-point blowout in Game 2. But the Nets were hobbled by injuries to Irving and Harden, and Antetokounmpo turned in star performances of his own to extend the series to seven games. In the final game, a jump shot by Durant at the end of regulation came within a centimeter of ending the Bucks’ season: His toe was on the 3-point line, making the shot worth only a game-tying 2 points and not a game-winning 3. Instead, with Antetokounmpo’s 40 points and 13 rebounds, the Bucks took the series-deciding game in overtime in Brooklyn.
In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against the upstart Atlanta Hawks, with the series tied at two games each, Antetokounmpo landed awkwardly and fell to the ground holding his left knee, raising fears that he would be the latest in a string of N.B.A. stars to miss time because of a serious injury. With his return date uncertain, the Bucks relied on Holiday and Middleton to win Games 5 and 6 and send Milwaukee to its first N.B.A. finals since 1974.
Antetokounmpo’s injury turned out to be only a hyperextension, allowing him to return for the championship round. In the finals, the Suns won the first two games at home, marking the third straight series in which the Bucks faced a deficit. Antetokounmpo’s 41 points during Game 3 in Milwaukee helped to turn the tide, as the Bucks won, 120-100.
In Game 4, the Bucks, came back from 9 points down in the fourth quarter and evened the series behind Middleton’s 40 points. But that game will be remembered most for Antetokounmpo’s late-game block on Suns center Deandre Ayton, one of the most significant defensive plays in N.B.A. finals history.