Exhaustion draped Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo early in the game, at the end of the game and all points between.
He looked for a breather whenever possible — timeouts, free throws, dead balls, between quarters.
Bucks guards Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday struggled offensively. But Antetokounmpo had just enough energy, and Middleton and Holiday found offense when the Bucks needed it most.
Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Holiday and Brook Lopez helped drag the Milwaukee Bucks to a 115-111 Game 7 overtime victory against the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday and into the Eastern Conference finals.
Antetokounmpo had 40 points, 13 rebounds and five assists in 50 minutes, delivering a performance befitting a two-time MVP in a series finale.
“I almost got a little emotional out there,” Antetokounmpo said, “because the team really, really tried their best. We kept our composure. We were down 2-0 (in the series). A lot of people didn’t believe that we could win back home. We protect homecourt with our unbelievable fans. Just to come to New York where we were 0-5 in our last five games. Everybody’s anxious, everybody’s nervous.
“To be able to execute, to believe in one another, to trust one another, it was big time. Really happy for this team. I’m really happy for what we got done. But the job is not.”
It was Antetokounmpo’s first Game 7 victory in two tries.
“There’s so much responsibility he takes on every night,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “The defense, what he’s having to do, guard all kinds of different guys, be in different coverages. Offensively, the ball’s in his hands a ton, whether it’s coming in transition almost like a point guard, playing out of the post, he just does so much and to be able to do it for 50 minutes, just super impressed. He’s very special.”
Although they were a combined 14-for-49 from the field, including 4-for-16 on 3-pointers, Middleton finished with 23 points, 10 rebounds and six assists and Holiday ended up with 13 points, eight assists and seven rebounds.
“Those guys, they’re great competitors,” Budenholzer said. “I love the way they keep coming, keep playing. Find a way to win an overtime game on the road, a Game 7. They all made big plays down the stretch. We needed every one of them.”
Milwaukee advanced to the conference finals for the first time since 2019 but just the second time in the past 21 seasons. The Bucks will play the winner of Sunday’s Atlanta-Philadelphia Game 7 in the conference finals starting Wednesday.
“This group’s going to want more,” Budenholzer said. “We’ll take a second to just kind of breathe tonight. When appropriate, when the time is right, it’ll be time to get ready for the next round and the next competitive moment that’s going to be coming in Game 1.”
At times, including late in the fourth quarter and much of overtime, it looked like short-handed Brooklyn, led by Kevin Durant’s offensive masterpiece, was headed for the victory.
The Nets led 101-96 with four minutes remaining in regulation. “They made a couple of plays where you think they were going to win the game,” Middleton said. “But we just stayed with it. We were down a majority of the game and late in the fourth quarter. But we stayed resilient. We made plays down the stretch.”
The big plays for Milwaukee were numerous.
A Middleton 3 followed by a Antetokounmpo layup followed by a Holiday 3 gave the Bucks a 104-101 lead. Free throws by Middleton and Holiday pushed Milwaukee’s lead to 109-105.
Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday were the only Bucks to score in the fourth quarter, and Lopez, who scored 19 points, had three of his four blocked shots in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Durant had a say in how this game finished. His long 2-pointer — his foot was on the 3-point line — with one second left in the fourth quarter forced overtime. He finished with a Game 7 NBA-record 48 points. It was his second 40-point game of the series and the second time in the series he played the entire game.
The Nets led 111-109, and the Bucks went scoreless for the first 3:48 of overtime. Antetokounmpo’s short hook shot in the paint tied the score at 111-111, and Middleton’s jumper put the Bucks up 113-111 with 40.7 seconds left.
“I don’t care how many shots I make as long as I take great shots,” Middleton said. “That’s all I’m worried about it.”
Durant didn’t have any last-second heroics left. He missed a 3-pointer with 0.3 seconds left, and he was 0-for-6 in overtime.
The Nets were hampered by injuries and still almost won. Kyrie Irving missed the final three games of the series with a sprained ankle, and James Harden missed all but 43 seconds of the first four games of the series with a sore hamstring.
Harden had 22 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in Game 7. Every Nets starter scored in double figures and played at least 40 minutes. Harden also played all 53 minutes, and Bruce Brown played 52. The short Nets bench did not score a point.
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.