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SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt breaks down the new teams and stars who have emerged as contenders for the NBA Championship.

USA TODAY

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton saved the Milwaukee Bucks’ season at the start and end of Game 3.

Antetokounmpo took to dunk painting, and Middleton hit their 3-ball as the pair combined Milwaukee’s first 30 points and a 21-point lead over the Brooklyn Nets.

But this good start has fizzled out. It was a three-point game at halftime, and Brooklyn took its first lead of the game late in the third quarter.

With their season on the line, the Bucks avoided a disastrous 3-0 hole, beating the Nets 86-83 in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinal on Thursday.

“No matter how you do it at this time of year, you just have to find a way to do it,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.

Trailing 83-80, Middleton and Jrue Holiday, who struggled offensively, took back-to-back shots and the Bucks took an 84-83 lead with 11.4 seconds left.

“To just take the ball, go to the basket and finish with a scrambled defense, we needed that,” Budenholzer said of Holiday’s basket. “We needed this game from him, and he did. It was huge.”

The Nets called the time out but didn’t execute a solid play, and runner Bruce Brown didn’t come in. Middletown made two free throws, giving the Bucks an 86-83 lead. Kevin Durant’s 3-point attempt hit the back of the rim at the end of time.

Game 4 is Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ABC), and the Bucks have a chance to tie the Eastern Conference semi-final series at 2-2.

“For us to have the big first quarter and then things change and for us it was just finding a way to win a game,” said Budenholzer. “Your character was tested in the playoffs. Your character is tested for this game. The group has a high character. They responded. Now we just need to refill our cup and get ready to do it again.”

Antetokounmpo (33 points and 14 rebounds) and Middleton (35 points and 15 rebounds) combined for 68 of Milwaukee’s 86 points. No other Bucks player has scored in double digits.

Two of the league’s best offensives struggled, with no team shooting better than 40% from the field and 25% from 3 points.

“The two teams were fighting for any bucket they could get,” Budenholzer said.

Durant scored 23 of his 30 points in the second half. Durant also had 11 rebounds, five assists, four steals and one block. Kyrie Irving finished with 22 points and Brown, who posted a career-high 16 points in the playoffs, kept the Nets in the game in the second quarter.

Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.

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