Could there be much more critical a setup heading into tonight’s game? A stretch of wonderful play ready to be continued by Milwaukee, a chance at the fifth seed in the East within reach, and a triumphant return from their recent West Coast road trip to Wisconsin were all in store. All that stood in the way of the continuing Cinderella story were the visiting Atlanta Hawks.
Surely this test would be easier than six straight games on the road, right? Right?!?!
Things started out just about dead-even throughout most of the first quarter with both sides doing their best to score a whole bunch and not play a whole lot of defense. This would eventually begin to play in Milwaukee’s favor once the starter’s would rotate out, but to begin with, it was a showcase of both team’s offense.
It began to get a bit physical inside, especially as the first wound down, and the Hawks had no compunction about pushing the ball into the paint and Dwight Howard on consecutive possessions with about three minutes left. Greg Monroe would not let his honor be besmirched by such a challenge, and his rebounding effort was visible as he fought on a variety of feats of strength beneath the hoop.
Of course, the first quarter was dominated mostly by Giannis Antetokounmpo as the offensive focal point. From the start, it was his quarter to impact dishing inside, shooting outside, and influencing the defense with steals and a few blocks. He closed the first 12 minutes of play with 17 points, eight rebounds, three blocks, three assists, and a steal. That was a good sign for what the rest of the night had in store.
A deserving break that lasted a good portion of the second quarter meant his impressive statline remained roughly the same by the half, but that extra energy would come in handy if the game remained close down the stretch.
As the bench unit came in to maintain the lead, we were treated to the wonderful surprise that was a Mirza Teletovic layup after a pumpfake opened up the baseline for an easy score. Thrilling stuff, truly, and exactly what we tuned in hoping to see.
Elsewhere, Jason Terry contributed with a three to get the crowd into things, and Malcolm Brogdon took advantage of the open lanes to flash yet another athletic dunk in a season full of them.
The bench kept up the defensive pressure, and it surprisingly wasn’t until the final minutes that the trifecta of Giannis-Khris Middleton-Tony Snell was subbed back in. Much needed rest for a late-season playoff push? One heck of a conspiracy theory, if you ask me.
Either way, instead of maintaining the double-digit lead over Atlanta, the starting unit plus Brogdon had difficulty stifling a stretch of hot shooting by the visitors. The Hawks would go on a run to bring things back within two at the half, 43-45.
If there was a bit of hope, it was that nearly all of Atlanta’s production was concentrated near wholly in the hands of Dwight Howard, Dennis Schröder, and Tim Hardaway Jr. They combined for 35 points on 16-31 shooting, and outside of that trio, the legendary Kris Humphries added five from the bench. That’s it. Five points from the entire bench. Surely that was something the Bucks could take advantage of in the second half, right?
The woes against the starting unit continued after the break with the slim lead fully evaporating as the Hawks took back a lead with eight minutes to go in the third. It continued to be Giannis’ evening at least on the offensive end. That help was sorely needed, especially as Middleton rapidly fell back to Earth with an 0-7 shooting mark after three. His struggles went a long way to handicapping the starting lineup (alongside Snell and Brogdon), and it showed in just how close things were most of the evening.
It was essentially a three-man Atlanta show, and the Bucks had difficulty taking advantage all night long.
After losing the lead, it took the return of Atlanta’s substitutes to the floor for things to be brought back to striking distance. The Hawks improved their three point shooting up to 40% after three, and from how things were shaking out, it appeared as if it would take a final dose of high pressure defense if Milwaukee were to push things over the top.
That defense, unfortunately, failed to materialize as Atlanta retained the lead for the majority of the fourth. It quickly devolved once more into a footrace as to who could score the critical bucket at the close.
Luckily, things started to look up with a lineup consisting of Malcolm Brogdon, Jason Terry, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Spencer Hawes. Hawes of all people had a stretch of crucial play with about five minutes left, getting a much needed basket on a putback to keep the Bucks up by three, 90-87.
After that, a stretch of back and forth throwaway possessions would let the Hawks get right back into it, with Hardaway Jr. getting an easy lay-in to take back the lead, 92-90.
A Brogdon-Greg Monroe pick-and-roll connection off a miracle save from Giannis led to a off-the-glass lay-in to give Milwaukee the lead, 96-94. Brogdon and Monroe connected twice down the stretch to cushion the Bucks’ lead.
Another pair of baskets for each team, and it’d come down to a matter of hitting the free throws and playing a final possession of defense to ice the game.
Milwaukee would do just that, forcing a poor outside shot from Atlanta, and they come away with the win tonight, 100-97.
It was truly impressive just how singular the Hawks were when it came to production. Schröder led the way with 28 points, Hardaway with 25, and Howard with 20. Outside of them, the rest of the team combined for 24 points. Poor shooting nights from the trio of Middleton, Brogdon, and Snell simply compounded the problems for Milwaukee.
However, with Giannis Antetokounmpo ending the night with 34 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, three blocks and two steals, it proved enough to keep the Bucks close enough for the team’s role players to do just enough to push them over the top.
Overall, it was a sloppy game for both teams, but earlier this year this was a sloppy game that Milwaukee would fall apart in in the closing minutes. They are continually doing a better job of putting teams away (a trait common among legitimate NBA teams), and that has to be a heartening sign as the season draws to a close.
And so, with that, the Bucks head off into the night as co-owners of the Eastern Conference’s 5-seed. The playoffs are a calling, and it looks ever more like Milwaukee is ready to answer.
The Bucks will host the Bulls Sunday afternoon, and we look forward to seeing you back here then!