MILWAUKEE (AP) — There’s more than a berth in the NBA Finals at stake when the Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks square off for the Eastern Conference championship.
The winner of the series that starts Wednesday also will end decades of frustration.
Milwaukee won its lone NBA title in 1971 and last reached the Finals in 1974. The Hawks won their only championship in 1958 and lost in the Finals in 1957, 1960 and 1961 — and that’s when they were still playing in St. Louis.
“This is obviously a great chance, a great opportunity for us,” Bucks center Brook Lopez said. “But what is it, you can’t put the cart before the horse or whatever? We’ve got a lot of business to take care of still. We’ve got to go get Game 1.”
The Bucks got here by sweeping the Miami Heat and surviving a seven-game series with the second-seeded Brooklyn Nets. Atlanta beat the New York Knicks in five games and knocked off the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in seven.
Both the Bucks and Hawks ended their second-round series by earning their first Game 7 road victories ever.
It’s been an impressive turnaround for the Hawks, who were 14-20 and 11th in the East standings when they fired coach Lloyd Pierce at the beginning of March. The Hawks closed the regular season by going 27-11 under Nate McMillan and have followed that up with an 8-4 playoff record.
Trae Young has led the way by scoring 29.1 points per game in his first postseason.
“I think our guys have done a really good job of just locking in to that particular game and not thinking about what happened in the past and not thinking about anything other than what we need to do in that game,” McMillan said.
The Hawks are in the playoffs for the first time since 2017. The Bucks are more accustomed to this stage.
Milwaukee posted the league’s best regular-season record in 2019 and 2020 but couldn’t translate that success to the postseason. The Bucks blew a 2-0 lead to Toronto in the 2019 East finals and lost in the second round to Miami last year.
“I try not as much to focus on the past and what happened,” Bucks forward and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “I learn from it and I just move on. This is a totally different series, different scenario, different players, different time. It’s going to be hard. It’s not going to be easy.”