By CHARLES F. GARDNER
MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo has carried the Milwaukee Bucks to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2001.
The Bucks have reason to believe they can go even further, thanks to a deep roster that received a boost with the return of guard Malcolm Brogdon for the clinching game of their semifinal series win over the Boston Celtics.
Brogdon missed the Bucks' first eight playoff games and final 13 regular-season games with a plantar fascia injury in his right foot. He was able to shake off some of the rust as he scored 10 points and played 17 minutes in Milwaukee's 116-91 victory over Boston in Game 5 on Wednesday (Thursday, Manila time).
"It was like he never left," Bucks center Brook Lopez said of Brogdon's long-awaited return. "He just picked everyone up. Our crowd felt it; our team felt it."
Now the Bucks will turn their attention to a conference final matchup against either Toronto or Philadelphia. Either way, they will host the first two games next week — and the reserves are heating up.
Bench play was critical in the team's four straight victories against Boston after the Celtics handily won Game 1. Veteran point guard George Hill averaged 14.2 points in the series while shooting 59.6% from the field (28 of 47) and 47.4% from three-point range (9 of 19).
Pat Connaughton and Ersan Ilyasova also played key roles off the bench, and the pair combined for 17 points and 17 rebounds in the series clincher. Connaughton soared for rebounds and made key 3-pointers during the series, while Ilyasova played with grit and added timely baskets.
"We take pride in our depth so much," Lopez said. "We always say in the game, 'No let up, no let up.' We really feel we have no drop-off, regardless of who we have on the floor."
The 33-year-old Hill, who has played in 111 career postseason games and reached the NBA Finals with Cleveland last year, said there is something special at work with this Bucks team.
"We all enjoy playing together," Hill said. "It's hard to come by a team when no one hates each other, no one has animosity and no one cares who scores the most or who gets the most shots. This team has one thing in common: We all want to be competitive and we all want to win. When you have a team like that, it makes it easy when you're out there."
In Brogdon's absence, Sterling Brown moved into the starting lineup and played well during the final stretch of the regular season. After the Bucks' poor effort in the opener against Boston, Nikola Mirotic was inserted as a starter at small forward and Brown went to the bench. Mirotic contributed 10 points and 11 rebounds in 28 minutes on Wednesday.
"It's a big confidence (booster) when they put trust in you and also your teammates," Mirotic said. "It was not about shots. It was about good energy, playing good defense. ... Just play simple. With guys who share the ball this way, it's easy to play."
Brogdon became just the eighth NBA player in league history to finish a season with 50-40-90 mark, meaning he shot better than 50% from the field, 40% from 3-point range and 90% from the free throw line. He worked diligently with the training staff to be able to return at such a critical time. Coach Mike Budenholzer was encouraged with what he saw.
"He actually played more than we anticipated," Budenholzer said. "I think it was right at six weeks to come in and play in a playoff game. To contribute in a positive way speaks to his work ethic, his professionalism, his toughness."
The Bucks will continue to rely on the sensational play of Antetokounmpo, who is averaging 27.4 points and 11.3 rebounds through nine playoff games.
The league MVP candidate is excited for the challenge waiting in the next round and a chance to reach the NBA Finals, a place the Bucks have not been since 1974. That was the last time they won a conference crown, too, and it came three years after the franchise's only NBA title.
"There are going to be a lot of people that are going to doubt us," Antetokounmpo said. "There are going to be people that are going to be with us and there are people that are going to be against us. We realize that we've never been there before. But we are really, really hungry to achieve our goals.
"That's all I care about. As long as we go out there and play hard, we really don't care about what anybody has to say."