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Doc Rivers says Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard ‘very close’ to returning

giannis antetokounmpo jae crowder damian lillard game 5

Damian Lillard (left) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (right) talk with Jae Crowder after the Bucks’ Game 5 win.

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Milwaukee Bucks coach Doc Rivers continues to express hope that Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard can return from injuries before the end of their Eastern Conference first-round series with the Indiana Pacers.

The Bucks played without their top two players once again and kept their season alive with a 115-92 Game 5 victory Tuesday night. Rivers was asked afterward about the potential availability of Antetokounmpo and Lillard for the rest of the series.

“I don’t know how to answer that,” Rivers said. “I know I hope. I think they’re very, very, very close.”

Antetokounmpo is dealing with a strained left calf that has kept him out for the entire series. Lillard injured his Achilles tendon during the Bucks’ 121-118 Game 3 overtime loss on Friday.

The Bucks survived a must-win game without them Tuesday. The Pacers still lead the best-of-seven series 3-2 heading into Thursday’s Game 6 in Indianapolis.

Antetokounmpo hasn’t played since straining his left calf in an April 9 victory against the Boston Celtics. The two-time Kia MVP struggled to run up the court in the third quarter of that game when he grabbed his left calf and sat on the floor before eventually heading to the locker room. An MRI revealed the muscle strain.

Lillard twisted his left knee in the first quarter of Game 3, went to the locker room and returned to the game, then hurt his Achilles late in the fourth quarter. The seven-time all-NBA guard didn’t play in the Bucks’ 126-113 Game 4 loss on Sunday.

Both were watching from the bench during Game 5.

“They’re into it,” Bucks forward Khris Middleton said. “They’re cheering us on, encouraging us. Whenever they see little something in the game, they speak to us about it. They’re encouraging us. … It’s great to have their support on the bench. I wish they were out there with us, but in due time, hopefully they’ll be out there soon.”

Milwaukee has managed to avoid elimination thanks largely to Middleton, who has scored at least 25 points in each of the Bucks’ last three games despite dealing with a sprained right ankle.

Middleton scored 42 points in a Game 3 overtime loss and had 25 more whe the Bucks fell in Game 4. He followed that up by collecting 29 points, 12 rebounds and five assists Tuesday.

“He gave us everything tonight,” Rivers said.

Other Bucks also stepped up Tuesday. Bobby Portis bounced back from a Game 4 ejection to collect 29 points and 10 rebounds. Patrick Beverley overcame a strained right oblique and had 13 points and 12 assists. Pat Connaughton had his best game of the series with nine points and four assists.

They’re hoping they kept this series going long enough for Antetokounmpo and Lillard to return.

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