Let’s talk about the shimmy for a moment.
EVERY ANGLE of @TheTraeYoung's crossover, shimmy and triple! #ThatsGame— NBA (@NBA) June 24, 2021
48 PTS for Trae as the @ATLHawks take a 1-0 lead in the #NBAECF presented by AT&T.
Game 2: Friday at 8:30pm/et on TNT pic.twitter.com/39w2vHa50m
When the Milwaukee Bucks made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, their second trip in three years, many fans were optimistic about their chances. We were careful to not take credit away from their opponent, the Atlanta Hawks, who survived a tough seven-game semifinals series of their own. Any team that makes it this far is deserving of respect. When Trae crossed up Jrue Holiday, paused to bask in the glow of the highlight he had just created, and then calmly swished the shot (which is mandatory if you are going to shimmy like that), some people decried action as disrespectful. How dare he showboat like that, how dare he defile the sanctity of sport?! And as an opinion, there’s nothing wrong with feeling that way, although I have gone on record defending the shimmy as extremely cool and the best kind of trash talk in basketball.
But it wasn’t about respect. It was about fear.
In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, just like in Game 1 of their previous series against the Philadelphia 76ers (who lost) and in Game 1 of the series before that against the New York Knicks (who lost), the Atlanta Hawks demonstrated that they do not fear the Milwaukee Bucks, nor do they fear the moment or the opportunity they’ve put themselves in.
To their credit, the Bucks don’t fear the Atlanta Hawks either. They proved it. When Trae Young hit that shot, the Bucks responded. They didn’t respond just to the score or the game situation, but to Trae’s statement as well, with Giannis leading the way.
Giannis made sure to let his team know about Trae's shimmy pic.twitter.com/EaneYUAVUM— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 24, 2021
With that three at 2:26 in the third quarter, the Hawks opened up an 86-78 lead, matching their largest of the game set just a few moments earlier. From that point on, the momentum swung all the way in the Bucks’ favor as Milwaukee retook the lead and held onto it for a considerable length of time in the fourth.
But once again, fear is not a factor for these Atlanta Hawks. They play hard, yes, but they also play under control. Their poise and composure was impressive. That’s how they stole back the lead in the final moments and walked away with a W. They’re playing like a young team with sky-high hopes but no expectations, because they are a young team with sky-high hopes and no expectations. They weren’t favored to beat the Knicks, but they did. They weren’t favored to beat the Sixers, but they did. And say what you will about the issues with those two teams that put the Hawks in position to beat them, Atlanta still won. Why would they be afraid of the Bucks, considering the path they took to get here compared to Milwaukee’s?
To retake control of this series, the Milwaukee Bucks need to remain steadfast and not give in to the fear. Not fear of the Hawks, but fear of disappointment. This is the Bucks’ best chance to make the NBA Finals since 1974; the only way they’ll actually get there is if they take what they did in the second quarter and late in the fourth in Game 1, and apply it to all 48 minutes of basketball from here on out. The level of disciplined aggressiveness they showed in the second half is what it will take to avoid Trae Young having a Kevin Durant-esque impact on this series, and Jrue Holiday (the Bucks’ only credible threat to defend Trae) knows it.
There are a number of changes that still could be made between Games 1 and 2. Perhaps the Bucks need to go smaller sooner, and play Brook Lopez fewer minutes so that Giannis, PJ Tucker, and Bobby Portis (remember him?) can use their mobility. Perhaps Tucker needs to join the reserves and Pat Connaughton (a decent perimeter defender) can join the starters to help contain Atlanta’s perimeter attack. Perhaps Jeff Teague can just...not play. There are upsides and downsides to each of these changes, and perhaps the easiest change of all is to simply hit shots (Milwaukee was only 8-for-36 on threes, a rate of 22.2% and a reminder that they’ve shot terribly this postseason) or have a halfway-decent game from Khris Middleton (who was 6-for-23 from the field and an abysmal 0/9 on threes), and the end result might be vastly more positive.
But one thing is certain; no matter what the Bucks do, the Hawks are not going to ever back down. They are never going to give in to the fear. So when fear is not a factor, the Bucks need to fall back on what they can do, and make the Hawks respect them. That’s the biggest change in Milwaukee’s pursuit of the NBA Finals.