By Peter Gleason
The Sixers have been out of the playoffs for almost a month, but their alumni are starring in the NBA Finals.
Jrue Holiday, whom the Sixers drafted in 2009, stole the ball and alley-ooped to Giannis Antetokounmpo for a dunk sealed a wild Game 5 and gave the Bucks a 123-119 victory over the Phoenix Suns.
Antetokounmpo had 32 points, nine rebounds and six assists. Khris Middleton added 29 points, and Holiday had 27 points and 13 assists.
The Bucks fought their way out of an early 16-point hole by flirting with the best-shooting night in NBA Finals history, but then won it by making a huge defensive play for the second straight game.
They can win their first title since 1971 in Milwaukee on Tuesday night.
“One more to go. One more to go,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’ve got to keep playing good basketball.”
Booker had 40 points, his second straight 40-point game. But with the Suns rallying and down one with 16 seconds left, he drove into the middle and Holiday wrestled the ball out of his hands.
Antetokounmpo sprinted down the court to his right and Holiday fired a perfect lob pass that the Greek Freak slammed down while Chris Paul fouled him to make it 122-119. Antetokounmpo missed the free throw, but the Bucks grabbed the rebound and Middleton made one free throw for the final point of the night.
Before the defensive stand, Milwaukee’s offense was the story. The Bucks made 32 of 45 shots in the middle two quarters, outscoring the Suns 79-53 during that stretch.
Milwaukee became the first road team to win in the series and with one more victory will complete its second 2-0 comeback in this postseason — along with the fifth in NBA Finals history.
Paul had 21 points and 11 assists, and Deandre Ayton finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds. But the Suns missed a chance to move within a victory of their first championship and will need a victory at Fiserv Forum to bring the series back to the desert for Game 7 on Thursday night.
Milwaukee was at 62.1% shooting after three quarters, threatening to challenge Orlando’s 62.5% mark against the Lakers in Game 3 of the 2009 finals. Holiday’s basket had the Bucks in good shape at 108-94 with about 9 minutes remaining, but the Suns put together a push in the final minutes.
Down 10 with just under 3 1/2 minutes remaining, the Suns got a 3 from Booker and a basket by Paul to cut it to 120-119 with 56 seconds to play. Holiday missed a jumper, but that didn’t matter once the defensive ace of the Bucks backcourt took it back from Booker.
It wasn’t as spectacular a defensive play as Antetokounmpo’s block of Ayton’s dunk attempt that preserved a two-point lead in Game 4, but it was every bit as important to a Bucks team making its first finals appearance since 1974.
It good off to a bad start when the Suns won the first two games, but things changed when the series moved — even the name of the arena. The Suns announced a naming rights deal Friday that changed Phoenix Suns Arena into the Footprint Center.
Whatever the name, the arena was so loud during the Suns’ sensational start to the first quarter that nobody could hear a foul on P.J. Tucker after a turnover to prevent a breakaway. The Suns threw it ahead to Booker, who threw down a dunk as Antetokounmpo sprinted back and grabbed his arm in what otherwise may have drawn a flagrant foul.
Not getting that basket didn’t slow the Suns, who scored the next seven points to open a 32-16 lead on Mikal Bridges’ 3-pointer. The Suns made 14 of 19 shots (73.7%) in the first quarter and led 37-21.
But Booker started the second on the bench and the Bucks opened with a 21-5 spurt to quickly tie it at 42 on Pat Connaughton’s 3-pointer with 7:48 remaining in the half.
Milwaukee took a 64-61 advantage to the break, becoming the second team in finals history to lead at halftime after trailing by at least 15 after one, according to Elias.