When the Milwaukee Bucks escaped from their matchup against the Brooklyn Nets with a thrilling overtime win, the mood of the fanbase was one of deserved adulation. Winning Game 7 on the road was not impossible (merely improbable), and the Bucks beat the odds and were able to start looking ahead to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Except...they couldn’t really look ahead, because the other semifinals matchup had also reached a Game 7 climax that took place last night. Milwaukee couldn’t start game planning until this morning, because we didn’t know if we would be playing the Philadelphia 76ers or the Atlanta Hawks. The Sixers had long been tabbed as a showdown waiting to happen, what with their top record in the conference, an MVP candidate in Joel Embiid driving them forward, and a ton of bad blood between the two fanbases.
And then the Sixers collapsed again, and bowed out. Meaning Atlanta is the opponent standing between the Bucks and a trip to the NBA Finals.
That’s why they play the games, isn’t it?
The Bucks and Hawks are merely acquaintances, as far as NBA matchups go. There is very little tying these two teams together, making storylines difficult to manufacture. They don’t have a storied playoff history, or even recent seasons where the two were jockeying for playoff positioning. Yes, Mike Budenholzer was a successful head coach for some great Hawks teams...but his tenure ended four years ago and Atlanta has fully rebuilt since then. Jeff Teague was on the Hawks roster for a long time, and old friend Tony Snell was featured in the Bucks rotation...but neither of them are in the rotation currently.
One possible point of contention that fans will latch on to is Bogdan Bogdanovic, who was a Buck-in-theory for about three days last offseason. That he isn’t a Buck is still a sore spot for many fans (although the blame can be shared with a certain prominent NBA reporter), and Bogdanovic is the type of heady scorer who could give teams fits...but he’s currently dealing with a knee injury that has limited him to less than 24 minutes per game over the last three contests with Philly.
What does stand out is the general timetable that each franchise is working on, and how different they feel. This season marks the first year that Trae Young, Atlanta’s hotshot point guard and aspiring NBA villain, was surrounded by the type of talent needed to determine whether or not he’s for real at this level of competition. As he put on full display during the Hawks’ dispatching of the Knicks and the recovery of Philadelphia’s numerous fumbles, Young can handle the pressure.
COOLER THAN THE OTHER SIDE OF THE PILLOW. pic.twitter.com/JanRzj1hCB— Atlanta Hawks (@ATLHawks) May 24, 2021
Then again, this is Trae Young’s first deep playoff run. Ditto for teammates Kevin Huerter and John Collins, who are exciting to watch develop but they’ve not been here before. Clint Capela has been around some runs in Houston, and Bogdanovic, Lou Williams, and Danilo Gallinari are all experienced veterans...but they’re not the cornerstones. That designation goes to Young (22), Huerter (22), and Collins (23), as well as the unfortunately injured De’Andre Hunter (23) who will not play in this series after undergoing knee surgery earlier this month. On the flip side, the Bucks have been here before. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, and Pat Connaughton were all a part of the 2019 ECF flameout against Toronto. They have made it to this level before and fell short. Jrue Holiday hasn’t made as many deep playoff appearances, but he’s up to the challenge. PJ Tucker is Milwaukee’s most-elder rotation member and knows what this environment is like.
This is not to say that Atlanta is not capable of continuing their string of upsets. Of course they’re capable, they wouldn’t be in the Eastern Conference Finals otherwise! But with home court advantage inexplicably on the side of Milwaukee, and the level of relevant experience the Bucks can claim and the Hawks cannot, it’s fair to argue that the conditions favor Milwaukee in this series.
In terms of how these two teams have played each other this season, we have three games of direct matchup data to work with.
- January 24: Bucks over Hawks, 129-115
- April 15: Bucks over Hawks, 120-109
- April 26: Hawks over Bucks, 111-104
Three games does not a large sample size make, and in looking at some of the details and context about each game, the sample shrinks smaller still. For instance, the January 24 matchup did not feature Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, or Clint Capela for Atlanta, and took place during the DJ Augustin/Torrey Craig era for Milwaukee. It was also well before the Hawks cut ties with Lloyd Pierce, handing the reins over to Nate McMillan (who has performed admirably). That leaves us with a pair of April games, which the Bucks and Hawks split, both in Atlanta. Even then, Gallinari missed the first one, and Young missed the second, resulting in very little relevant results to work through for this series...which will send one of the two teams to the championship round.
In terms of what Atlanta is in general, they’re about what you’d expect for a team led by a diminutive scoring dynamo flanked by a stable of gunners. The Hawks boast a pretty good offense (regular season ORtg of 114.3, 9th overall), and a pretty bad defense (regular season DRtg of 112.1, 18th overall). The trend of games slowing down and getting ugly held true for them in the playoffs (ORtg: 108.6; DRtg: 107.7), and is in no small part due to the opponents they’ve faced (Knicks and Sixers both had strong defenses and played at a slower pace than in the regular season). They take far fewer threes than one might expect (3PAr: 38.2%, 19th overall), and their rim protection is suspect (48.7 points per game allowed in the paint, 20th overall). Their egalitarian approach to offense is a curious wrinkle; their seven most prominent rotation players have each averaged at least 10.0 points per game during the regular season, and the two who aren’t (Hunter and Cam Reddish) are both out with injuries. What can we expect from their main playoff rotation?
At this point, we know what Trae Young is: he’s a skinny point guard with a great handle, savant-like passing ability, and shooting range that stretches as far as the eye can see.
TRAE YOUNG CLUTCH THREE— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 21, 2021
Young has averaged 29.1 points and 10.4 assists per game in the playoffs, but is only shooting 41.3% from the field and 33% from deep. He is a talented offensive player, but not the most efficient one except for drawing fouls, which he is a member of the Harden School for Earning Whistles (averaging 8.8 FTAs/game in the playoffs). The Bucks would do well to tire him out by forcing him to work on defense (where he has a size disadvantage over basically everybody) and play up on him to avoid those long-range bombs.
One more note: if you want the Bucks to win, DO NOT BOO THIS MAN. Some players can get rattled by opposing crowds, but the Hawks have a 5-2 road record this postseason and Trae’s borderline inhuman response to those pressures is a big part of that. Milwaukee’s defense will surely have a plan for Young, but extra fan attention seems to recharge his batteries...so let’s not make this harder than it has to be.
This video is all you need to know about how Hawks fans feel about Huerter.
dont huerter like that pic.twitter.com/SOP5zpVZxJ— blackdragonroll (@blackdragonroll) June 21, 2021
Huerter, you may recall, was a potential draft target for the Bucks a few years ago, when they ended up selecting Donte DiVincenzo (who sadly will not play in this series as he continues to recover from ankle surgery). The Bucks’ interest in Donte leaked and scuttled a trade where Milwaukee would have moved down and picked up an asset while still drafting DiVincenzo, that’s how coveted Huerter was by the Hawks. He has come into his own this postseason, averaging 13.1 points and shooting 37.1% from deep in the Philly series.
We learned all about Bogdanovic this past offseason, so we already know that he’s a savvy scorer who, similar to Trae, does not shy away from big moments. He’s had the best shooting season of his career in Atlanta (43.8%) and has maintained his excellent secondary playmaking (AST% of 17.6 vs. TOV% of only 8.5) that made him an attractive trade target in Sacramento. His defense is unremarkable and, as we mentioned, he’d been all season limited by an avulsion fracture in his right knee. He still played and contributed in the Philadelphia series, but had to drop out of Game 6 with separate knee soreness and played only 21 minutes in Game 7.
The fourth-year forward out of Wake Forest regressed a tiny bit from his breakout season last year, but he still pairs his excellent production (17.6 points and 7.4 boards per game, 39.9% shooting from three) with outstanding athleticism and a knack for swaggy fashion choices.
John Collins is wearing a shirt with his poster of Joel Embiid. pic.twitter.com/9OyE3Uq73C— Kevin Chouinard (@KLChouinard) June 21, 2021
Collins is a big-time lob threat for Trae Young, and he’s a “go up and get it” rebounder. He is not a consistent component of the Hawks’ offense, logging just as many playoff games with single-digit points (3) as 20+ (3) this year, and his field goal opportunities seem to come and go. Collins figures to take the lead on the Giannis matchup for Atlanta, since he has just enough size and athleticism to compete on that end, but the Hawks may benefit from “hiding” Collins on Brook Lopez instead and have their center draw Giannis.
With the Rockets, Capela was one of the league’s premier rim-runners and boasted sky-high field goal percentages because of the percentage of his shots that were taken at the basket. He has mostly continued that trend with Atlanta, though he’s become a stronger rebounder and rim protector since joining the Hawks. He is, as always, a non-shooter, and his presence on the floor will have one less concern for the Bucks’ defense. He had his hands full with Joel Embiid last round (like anybody else would), and between him and Collins will have their hands full again with Giannis. Capela might be a better post defender for Giannis but neither he or Collins have the extreme size that they might need for the Greek Freak, and neither has the size to compete with Brook Lopez when the Bucks play big.
The longtime NBA veteran was thought to be a potential pickup for Milwaukee, but in Atlanta he’s found a role as a bench scorer supreme, putting up 12.5 postseason points per game with 39.0% shooting. Gallo is much older than most of his Hawks teammates, but that age comes with a certain savvy that ended up putting the Sixers away.
Gallinari with a steal and that’s it.— The Hoopery (@thehoopery) June 21, 2021
The Atlanta Hawks have advanced the the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in six years. #NBA pic.twitter.com/1OuY1cfVEj
Gallo is a big shooter (6’10”), which makes contesting difficult when he decides to hoist one up. Over the years, he’s been limited by nagging injuries, though that hasn’t been an issue in Atlanta. He will come off the bench to put pressure on the Bucks to match his points production.
Speaking of points production, Lou Williams is still doing his thing. At 34 he doesn’t have the same sort of minutes load as he once did, but few players are as good at getting shots at their spots than LouWill. He figures to be one of the players Nate McMillan drops from the rotation first, considering he’s never been a good defender and the Hawks have enough scoring in their backcourt, but if Bogdanovic isn’t 100% then Williams may need to fill in.
The 6th overall pick of the draft was not expected to contribute this season, and while he got only spot minutes in the regular season he was a short-term solution in the pivotal games to close the Philly series when it was clear that Solomon Hill wasn’t providing what Atlanta needed. Okongwu is a relative non-factor on offense and at only 20 years old, he doesn’t have much experience playing competitive minutes at this level. Still, he knows his role is not to make decisions but to facilitate decision-making for others, as he’s a screen-setting rim-runner in the mold of teammate Clint Capela. He offers significant mobility from the center position but doesn’t have much more skills to offer in this series than that; figure to see him whenever Atlanta wants to throw an energetic big at Giannis to try and push the pace.
As I mentioned on Twitter, the Atlanta Hawks are a good team. They deserve respect and serious consideration for making it this far. However, in a series where the Bucks have home court advantage and Atlanta only has one player who might make the list of top-5 players in a series across both teams, Milwaukee should be widely expected to win this series. The Bucks have both the talent and the fortitude to win tough playoff matchups, and having just gotten past the Brooklyn Nets, there’s no reason Milwaukee’s confidence shouldn’t result in imposing their will on the undersized and relatively green Hawks.
But what do you think? What matchups are you looking forward to in this series? Do you have any burning questions, excited predictions, or hot takes? Let us know in the comments!