Wow. What a crazy few days it’s been in the NBA, as the Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks are set to square off in what should be a captivating Eastern Conference Finals. Due to the Sixers’ crumbling in the second round, Game 1 is set to tip-off Wednesday evening at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee — and it will surely be electric. With that being said, let’s dive in and provide some thoughts towards this ECF:
What worries you the most about the Hawks?
Gabe: Trae Young. While he struggled in his lone appearance when facing the Bucks this season, the offensive capability that Young brings to the floor is top-notch. Yes, he’s also dealing with a right shoulder injury that clearly hindered his performance in the semifinals against Philadelphia. However, despite that, you know he’s going to be shooting. It’s very likely that he’ll have a game where he doesn’t miss, and for the Bucks’ sake, they hope they can keep it to just one game. Young will definitely challenge Milwaukee’s drop defense with his floaters. It’s just a matter of if the Bucks can mitigate it.
Van: Their starting backcourt. If Bogdan Bogdanovic—all the offseason controversy with him and the Bucks aside—was fully healthy, he would actually concern me more than Trae Young. Bogdanovic played in each game against Philly but saw his minutes reduced due to a sore knee. As you’ll recall, he put up two huge games against the Bucks in late April too. While you’d think Donte DiVincenzo would help with Bogdanovic, he couldn’t stop his almost-trade buddy in the one matchup they had. Young is prone to inefficient games and I trust Jrue Holiday to keep him in check, though the Hawk star only played once in three matchups against Milwaukee this year and has upped his game in the playoffs. He is also one of the best floater artists in the league, and as we’ve seen the last 3 years, the Bucks are fine with giving up those 6–10 footers in the lane. Can Holiday and the big men stop this?
Adam: Trae Young’s distribution. I’m not as concerned with the floaters, he’s gonna get those and they’re not an incredibly high value shot. Yes, they’re annoying, but even if he converts on 47% of them (akin to his regular season mark), you’ll live with it. FWIW, Bruce Brown hit 50% of his 3.7. attempts from floater range. The real worry is if Young is able to start distributing out of the pick-and-roll and get Milwaukee in rotation. They have shooters to punish the Bucks, even if they’re shooting worse than expected. Young can also punish the Bucks if they don’t get back in transition, and the lob threat to Capela will be frustrating. But, ultimately, if they can keep Young to semi inefficient shooting nights and limit how much he can get teammates involved, there’s a fairly solid path forward.
Kyle: While it’s not at the level of the Nets, the Hawks offense is nothing to sneeze at either. Their guards of Young, Hueter and that one guy Adam Silver didn’t want us to have are capable of getting hot and scoring at any moment. Their Bigs of Capela and Collins have the rim rolling ability that can give the Bucks fits and leave the Bucks’ zone drop scheme to get exposed.
Mitchell: Nate McMillan. Going back to the beginning of this season, Atlanta was a huge disappointment, many (myself included) were questioning the ceiling of a Trae Young-led team, and asking if there was any hope for a group that scored inefficiently and defended only in theory. But when the Hawks got down, Nate came to the rescue. He clearly struck a chord with this group and has them feeling like they can overcome anything and anyone, and that sort of confidence matters when your offense is built around guys who can catch a hot streak on short notice.
Andrew: Their shooting allows them to keep pace with the Bucks in any game. Jrue Holiday did a great job defending Trae Young in the only matchup they played against each other in the regular season, but we just saw Kevin Huerter win a Game 7 practically on his own. The Bucks will be better off allowing Danilo Gallinari to get some shots off. More shots for him means less looks for Trae, Kevin, and John Collins. Bogdan Bogdanovic is still dealing with a knee issue from the series against Philadelphia, so perhaps they will want to exploit him whenever he is on the floor.
What worries you the most about the Bucks?
Gabe: Whenever the Bucks have looked putrid this year, it’s been because of their 3-point shooting. It will be imperative for them to stay hot from the perimeter, especially against an Atlanta team that boasts some fantastic 3-point talent themselves. Van provides some great analysis on this beneath me, but plain and simple, it’d be troublesome if the Bucks can’t get it done from deep in multiple games. Jrue Holiday hasn’t been shooting well from deep and we all know how Khris Middleton can still have an off game every now and then. If Milwaukee keeps their shooting woes to appear in just one or so game, they should be fine.
Van: Their three-point shooting. Outside of two games (5 and 7) against Brooklyn and one (Game 2) against Miami, Milwaukee hasn’t even approached league average 3P% (36.7% in the regular season and 37% in the postseason), let alone their own regular-season mark (38.9%). Each of the aforementioned games were outliers somewhat given how poorly the Bucks have shot from deep in the playoffs, but none of them were more than 2% better than their regular-season average. More worrisome is that the Bucks have sunk threes at below a 22% rate four times so far this postseason. You can’t always count on mean reversion in 3–4 game sample sizes. Fortunately for the Bucks, they reverted in the seventh game of a series.
Adam: While overhelping on defense worries me a bit, they’ve found ways to be so sound defensively these Playoffs that I trust they’ll be solid enough on that end. Van and Gabe already touched on the 3-point shots falling, so I’ll simply go with the one nagging thing from the last series which was their lack of offensive flow. I’m quite curious to see how much of that was a product of the matchup against Brooklyn or if it may linger into this round two. They started to find significantly more motion and actions later in the Nets series though, so I’m hopeful they won’t be as stagnant.
Kyle: Milwaukee is unserious for lengthy stretches of the time. Milwaukee has won games where they shot poorly, Khris and/or Jrue played bad, the other player goes supernova. But what almost doomed them against the Nets was stretches where the Bucks collectively squandered leads or allowed Brooklyn to go on massive runs. Games 1, 2, and 5 saw the Bucks either have a lead and lose it or be close and Brooklyn blew their doors open. The Bucks offense gets bogged down and goes solely ISO and guys like Jrue and Giannis just kept chucking threes.
Mitchell: The triumph over Brooklyn required a different sort of defensive effort than the upcoming challenge that Atlanta faces. The Nets played iso-ball because that’s what they’re best at, whereas Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and the rest of the Nets perimeter players are adept creators and will use screens to find good shot opportunities. Because the Hawks feature a non-shooter at center (Clint Capela), this series is all but guaranteed to see a return to the Bucks’ base defense...which works wonders when everyone executes their assignment and doesn’t over help off of shooters. Milwaukee can survive if Atlanta chooses to end offensive possessions with midrange jumpers and floaters...but only as long as the Bucks don’t give them better options.
Andrew: The Bucks are their own worst enemies at times as we have seen over the last few years. They MUST take this Hawks team seriously or they will get bounced out of the ECF. In my opinion, this is a tougher matchup for Milwaukee than Philly would have been. Playing a young, hot team like the Hawks is a great litmus test for Milwaukee’s resolve. They just got a hell of an effort from KD and the Nets, so it is important for them to not let their foot off the gas and think that they are okay because they finally got over the hump by beating Brooklyn.
If Atlanta defeats Milwaukee, it will be because ___________.
Gabe: I’m going to stay on the point above and say disastrous shooting. However, I find it nearly impossible that it happens four times and results in four losses for Milwaukee.
Van: Milwaukee was dealing with significant injuries. I only see an upset happening if multiple Bucks stars (heaven forbid) miss multiple games. Thankfully, I don’t think the Hawks employ a player whose style is a safety threat to opponents like Blake Griffin or Goran Dragic did in the previous series.
Adam: All of Atlanta’s shooters go off and the Bucks have a horrific series in trying to match them from beyond the arc instead of continuing to push their advantages inside.
Kyle: Injuries, exposing the zone drop scheme, Milwaukee self-inflicting tendencies, Trae Young becomes Steph Curry.
Mitchell: The theme here is getting out-shot from deep, and barring a serious injury to any of the Bucks’ main contributors, that would seem to be Atlanta’s ticket to an upset.
Andrew: If the Bucks shoot like they did in Games 1 and 2 against Brooklyn, it’ll be a relatively easy series win for Atlanta.
What’s going to NEED to happen for the Bucks to advance?
Gabe: They’re going to need Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton to produce. When the two were clicking against the Nets, the Bucks could beat any team in the league. However, we all know how another team can take advantage if one (or two) of them are having off games. What happens if Khris can’t find his shot? What happens if Giannis isn’t aggressive? I think the Bucks are going to need to find a constant pattern of ensuring that those two are involved. If they’re out of sync in multiple games, it will become more challenging for the Bucks to advance.
Van: Appropriate pressure in half-court offensive sets. Outside of Clint Capela, the Hawks have no plus defenders healthy and could be quite weak on the perimeter, in part because they heavy minutes to one of the league’s worst defenders in Trae Young. Atlanta may look to hide him on P.J. Tucker (even if he doesn’t continue to start) when he’s in, so unlike the way the Bucks handled James Harden, Bud should be looking to switch Young onto any of Giannis, Middleton, Holiday, or Lopez. If Milwaukee decides to start Bryn Forbes (it would be good to get him going again) as a bigger offensive threat next to Holiday that can take advantage of Young, can the Bucks get by with Forbes on the other end? While Atlanta’s defense ranked 2 spots higher than Brooklyn’s in the regular season at merely 21st, it improved once Nate McMillan took over and we just saw how Milwaukee struggled with a similarly-rated defense. Capela will protect the rim, but for the non-Giannis Bucks who often make their hay outside the restricted area, being poor offensively will be inexcusable.
Adam: Giannis to lead the charge and employ the patience he showed later in the Brooklyn Nets series. There are going to be times where Atlanta will make crazy scoring runs, but Giannis shouldn’t have much trouble scoring against this team and he can shut down that momentum at any time. He shot 27-42 (64.3%) against Atlanta in their three matchups this season. I think he’ll be able to score more capably than against the Nets, and finding balance between offensive domination and shrewd playmaking should keep points consistently pouring in.
Kyle: Giannis, Khris and Jrue are three of the top five players in the series. Milwaukee’s half court offense HAS to be better. That means better ball movement, attacking the rim and better shot selection.
Mitchell: Jrue Holiday needs to bounce back and just produce his season averages on offense, including from three. That will bolster Khris’ and Giannis’ production, which should then relieve some pressure on the Bucks’ role players to come in and do their thing.
And while he did a great job in Miami and pulled a rabbit out of his hat against Brooklyn, Mike Budenholzer needs to be on-point. This series can be won early if the Bucks come correct and don’t start from a position of weakness. What worked against the Heat didn’t work against the Nets, and what worked against both won’t necessarily work against the Hawks. Does PJ Tucker really need to be a starter in this series? Do Bryn Forbes and Bobby Portis have clear roles after being mostly relegated to reserve roles last round? Lots of questions that need answering, not necessarily because the Hawks are a terrifying opponent but because the stakes are so high.
Andrew: Expose Atlanta’s lack of having a lockdown defender. The absence of De’Andre Hunter hurts their ability to defend on the perimeter and now they are left with Clint Capela as their last line of defense. I am positive that the Hawks will throw numerous different coverages at Antetokounmpo, and he will have to make the right reads out of double-teams to the open shooters. I really am expecting that the Bucks feast both inside, and outside in this series. Additionally, this is a GREAT series for both Bryn Forbes and Bobby Portis to get back on track. The Nets did a stellar job on both of them defensively and it seemed like they had no open looks in seven games.
What is your series prediction?
Gabe: I anticipate that this will be a gentleman’s sweep. Kudos to the Hawks for making it this far. They’re a great team, but I think a lot the previous series is on the Sixers crumbling as well. I think the Hawks will steal a home game on the MLK court, but that’s it. The Bucks will close this series out at Fiserv Forum and the city of Milwaukee is going to be absolutely rocking.
Van: Bucks in five. I think the Hawks will get one game at home, probably Game 4 as I can see the Bucks rattling off three Ws to start, riding high off the Nets defeat. From there Milwaukee closes it at home and punches their first Finals tickets since 1974.
Adam: I’ll go Bucks in six. I could see Atlanta stealing the first contest in typical Bucks fashion, and then nabbing one more before they go down. Ultimately, I trust the Bucks top-end talent more.
Kyle: I had said Atlanta would give Milwaukee more of a fit than a Philly team with a not-100% Joel Embiid. Their bigs can cause some issues and Atlanta has the offense where they can have a hot night or two that can topple Milwaukee. I think the Bucks beating Brooklyn has given them a massive confidence boost and Atlanta doesn’t have the scheme to stop both Giannis and Khris. I’ll say Bucks in six, but not because of reasons like “for the culture,” that should probably be retired anyway.
Mitchell: Bucks in five. Milwaukee has players that Atlanta doesn’t have clear answers to. Can Clint Capela really limit Giannis? Without De’Andre Hunter, who’s going to make Khris Middleton work for his shots? On the flip side, Atlanta has players that Milwaukee stands a good chance at solving. Trae Young is fantastic, but Jrue Holiday’s job is making Trae Young’s life miserable. John Collins can do a lot of things, but when matched up against Giannis or PJ Tucker?
The Bucks have been here before, and these Hawks haven’t. Milwaukee knows what it’s like to get this far and then falter, and the steps they have to take to get to the NBA Finals are clear. Who wants to bet that they’ll fail now? I don’t.
Andrew: The Hawks are a great story for the NBA and I could not be happier for Nate McMillan. However, playing the Bucks is MUCH different from playing the 76ers. The Bucks will make Atlanta defend, and ultimately, I believe it will be too much on their plates. I have the Bucks advancing to the Finals after defeating ATL in 5 games.