ATLANTA - Relying on young and old, the Milwaukee Bucks find themselves one win from an upset that looked improbable just a week ago.
No one is more stunned than the Atlanta Hawks, who figured they would have things all wrapped up by now.
Brandon Jennings scored 25 points, Kurt Thomas drew a crucial charging foul against Joe Johnson and the Bucks stunned the home team with a 14-0 run late in the game, beating the favoured Hawks 91-87 on Wednesday night for a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Milwaukee, appearing in the playoffs for the first time since 2006, responded like the seasoned post-season team after getting blown out in the first two games. The third-seeded Hawks, planning for a long run in their third straight playoff appearance, better figure out a way to win on the road or this season will be over much sooner than they expected.
Game 6 is Friday night in Milwaukee.
"The pressure's not on us," Jennings said.
Milwaukee centre Andrew Bogut is watching the playoffs with a cast on his right hand after taking a gruesome fall late in the regular season, but the 20-year-old Jennings keeps stepping up big with darting moves to the hoop and timely jumpers. The rookie scored 12 straight points early and clinched the victory with two free throws.
Joining him in a duo for the ages is the 37-year-old Thomas, one of the league's oldest players. Bogut's replacement doesn't show up much on the stat sheet -- he took only one shot and failed to score -- but he came up with perhaps the biggest play of the game when he stepped out to take a charge from Johnson with 2:15 remaining, the Atlanta star's sixth foul.
"I thought when Joe Johnson came out of the game," Jennings said, "we had a chance to win it."
The Hawks appeared to be in control leading 82-73 after Josh Smith's long jumper with 4:10 remaining. Milwaukee scored the next 14 points while Atlanta was missing seven straight shots. Even though Al Horford finally broke the drought with 19 seconds remaining, then banked in a three-pointer from the top of the key to finish with 25 points and 11 rebounds, it wasn't enough to make up for a total collapse.
"This is incredible," said Jamal Crawford, who had an awful game one day after winning the NBA's Sixth Man Award. "We had the game won. It just slipped away from us."
Crawford's night ended in appropriate fashion -- a desperation three-pointer that missed badly and left him sprawled on the court. He finished 4 of 18 from the field for 11 points. Johnson wasn't much better, making 6 of 16 for 13 points before fouling out for the first time this season.
"It was a terrible loss," Johnson said. "It was embarrassing."
The Bucks ran out the final seconds and celebrated with chest bumps in the centre of Philips Arena, while the Hawks straggled to the locker-room, hearing nothing but boos from a sellout crowd of 19,304.
"Bye-bye, Woody!" someone shouted at Atlanta coach Mike Woodson, whose contract is up at the end of a season that now finds itself in one loss-and-done mode.
"It's a tough loss," Woodson said, "but it's a seven-game series."
Atlanta cruised through the first two games at home and fully expected to win at least one game in Milwaukee, which would have set them up to clinch at home in Game 5.
Instead, it's the gritty Bucks who are on the verge of moving on to face waiting Orlando in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
"We feel great," Thomas said. "Even after the first two games, we felt very confident we would go home and get the job done."
Milwaukee shot 41 per cent from the field but simply outworked an Atlanta team that seemed stunned more and more to find itself in a tough series. John Salmons added 19 points for the Bucks and Luke Ridnour had 15.
"We know we didn't play well," Salmons said. "It was an ugly game."
But it sure looked pretty at the end. The Bucks continually drove to the hoop in the fourth quarter, drawing foul after foul and hitting 15 of 18 free throws. Stunningly, Atlanta never got to the line in the final period.
Marvin Williams had 22 points for the Hawks, who couldn't overcome the dismal showings by their two leading scorers, Johnson and Crawford.
The Hawks appeared to be taking control in the third quarter with the sort of play that had been missing since the first two games in Atlanta.
Johnson took things into his own hands, driving right around Thomas for a dunk that broke a 50-50 tie and sparked a 17-4 run that took less than four minutes. Johnson also hit a couple of jumpers during the spurt, and he got plenty of support from Horford and Williams.
Horford scored six points, including a couple of ferocious dunks set up by passes from Mike Bibby. After the second jam, Bibby backpedalled down the court with a smile on his face, the Hawks appearing to have fun for the first time all night.
Williams scored the other five points in Atlanta's outburst, including a three-point play that began at the other end with a turnover by Salmons.
The Bucks just wouldn't go away, even though both replacement centres, Thomas and Gadzuric, ran into foul trouble. Thomas picked up his fourth less than four minutes into the third quarter, while Gadzuric was whistled for his fifth before the period was done.
Unlike Johnson, they both managed to make it to the finish.
The Hawks' frustration showed early.
Zaza Pachulia sent Jennings flying with a hard whack late in the first quarter, drawing an intentional foul. The six-foot-one Jennings hopped off the court as though he wanted to go at the 6-11 Pachulia, but Thomas and the officials stepped in to push the rookie guard away. Ridnour jawed a bit with Pachulia before things calmed down.
Early in the second, Johnson doled out another hard foul on Ridnour, who tumbled to the court after taking a bit of a shove with the forearm.
The Bucks dished out some shots of their own. Thomas stepped out to set a pick on Smith, who tumbled to the court and rolled over with a gash over his right eye. He headed to the locker-room to get five stitches, but returned to the court late in the period with a bandage covering the wound.
NOTES: Bibby drew chuckles along press row when he attempted to check in during the first half, only to be told he had arrived at the scorer's spot a split-second too late. He looked at the officials in disbelief, then collapsed against the padded table as if he'd been hit with a punch ... Salmons is 23 of 24 at the foul line in the series, finally missing one late in Wednesday's game. ... Milwaukee was 23 of 29 at the free throw line, Atlanta 13 of 17.