By GENARO C. ARMAS, AP Sports Writer
MILWAUKEE (AP) — The Milwaukee Bucks looked sluggish at times coming back from a four-game trip, and the worst team in the Eastern Conference was threatening to knock them off at home.
All-Star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo led one last charge to help the Bucks hold on for a 97-92 win on Tuesday night over the Atlanta Hawks.
Antetokounmpo overcame a slow start from the field to hit two key buckets in the final three-plus minutes, and Khris Middleton led a balanced attack with 21 points as Milwaukee improved to 9-2 under interim coach Joe Prunty.
They’re a threat again for a top-four playoff seed in the East.
“When everything is judged on those last three minutes, you’ve got to do whatever it takes to win,” said Antetokounmpo, who had 15 points on 7-of-16 shooting and 15 rebounds.
Dennis Schroder scored 18 points for the Hawks, and Ersan Ilyasova had nine of his 15 points in the fourth quarter. Ilyasova spearheaded a late rally in which Atlanta erased a 12-point deficit and tied it at 84 on Kent Bazemore’s 3-pointer with 3:30 left.
Antetokounmpo answered with a mid-range jumper and layup to open an 8-0 run following a timeout. Schroder and Bazemore then whiffed on open layups following a steal with less than a minute left that could have helped the Hawks mount one last comeback.
“It’s guys making plays, that’s what it came down to. Making the extra effort, trying to get to the right spot defensively to close out,” Prunty said.
Better defense has lifted the Bucks since Prunty replaced the fired Jason Kidd on Jan. 22. They’ve held opponents to less than 100 points eight times during Prunty’s 11-game tenure.
While the Bucks are thinking about the playoffs, the Hawks are building for their long-term future. They’ll pull out a few positives from challenging a playoff contender on the road.
“We’ve kind of stopped looking at records and the standings,” Bazemore said. “Our coach and our front office likes the nucleus we have here, we’re all growing … it’s getting the pieces in place, getting the experience and we continue to push.”
Hawks: Second in the league at forcing turnovers (15.8 per game), Atlanta got the Bucks to cough up the ball just 10 times. … Bazemore had 17 points on 6-of-15 shooting.
Bucks: Forward Jabari Parker played 18 minutes and scored seven points after missing the previous game for rest. He has shown flashes of the explosiveness that made him a dangerous player before missing a year after suffering the second major left knee injury of his career on Feb. 8, 2017. At one point in the first half, Parker ripped down a rebound before dribbling nearly the length of the court and dishing near the bucket after drawing a double team.
ZELLER’S NEW HOME
Tyler Zeller had 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting and eight rebounds in his first game in Milwaukee since joining the team on the road before the trade deadline last week.
“It was actually kind of nice being on the road for the first five or six days, I could not worry about getting an apartment … or anything like that. I could just focus on basketball,” Zeller said.
ON THE RUN
A 14-2 run in the third quarter for the Bucks briefly broke open what had been a ho-hum game marked by questionable shot selection and bad misses on both sides. Middleton’s jumper with 2:58 left completed the spurt and lifted Milwaukee to a 65-53 lead.
“Besides the third quarter and a couple of situations late, I thought our defense was really improving and getting to the point where we want it to be,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said.
Hawks: Finish up the second half of a back-to-back by visiting the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday in their last game before the All-Star break.
Bucks: Host the Denver Nuggets on Thursday in their last game before the break.