He’s going to be okay. I don't know how, but he’s going to be okay.
There is no structural damage to Giannis Antetokounmpo's left knee after his awkward landing last night in Atlanta; ligaments are sound, sources tell @wojespn and I. Timetable to return is unclear.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) June 30, 2021
However, despite the fact that Giannis Antetokounmpo is doubtful – doubtful! somehow! – for Game 5 against the Atlanta Hawks, the Milwaukee Bucks face a harsh reality: either they find a way to win two of the next three games, or Giannis will have a few extra weeks to rest and rehabilitate this offseason.
A few things are obvious; Milwaukee needs more, much more, from both Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Middleton was a hero in Game 3 and helped secure the Bucks’ comeback, but aside from that monster fourth quarter Khris has struggled scoring the ball on Atlanta; he’s averaging 21.0 points per game but is taking 19.8 shots, and shooting only 41.8% from the field and 22.9% on threes. For the entire playoffs, Middleton has only managed to hit a third of his three pointers! For someone who shot above 41% from deep for the last two regular seasons, here’s hoping that a mean reversion is in order for Khris. Holiday, for his part, has had a more stable series, putting up 20.0 points and 9.5 assists per game, but the Bucks need him to be consistently excellent rather than go through ups and downs on the court.
This is also a situation where Brook Lopez may need to turn back the clock and get more opportunities in the paint. He’s had his minutes fluctuate in this series but with the status of both Trae Young (foot) and Clint Capela (eye) up in the air, a steady diet of post touches on offense may be just what the Bucks need to survive in Game 5.
Outside of those three, Milwaukee desperately needs production from their supporting cast. They have managed a +5.1 net rating as a team thus far in this series, but the sample size is small enough that a blowout one way (Game 2) or the other (Game 4) will drastically shift that indicator. To beat Atlanta, even as the Hawks are hobbled by injury woes of their own, Milwaukee needs to find advantages on the margins, and there simply aren’t very many margins in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Finding minutes in the postseason is already tough, but replacing playoff minutes is even tougher. Without Giannis, the Bucks have about 34 minutes in this series at the forward/center positions to dole out. Some of that will undoubtedly go to Brook Lopez, PJ Tucker, and Khris Middleton, because what other choice do they have? But Khris (36.8), PJ (30.5), and Brook (24.2) only have so many more minutes that they can take on and remain effective, so further creativity is required. Bryn Forbes can play some (more on him soon) and allow Jrue Holiday to slide down, and Pat Connaughton and Bobby Portis should be able to increase their minutes load as well, but they can’t afford to falter now. Jeff Teague is the only other Buck who could be expected to play significant minutes, but his struggles ever since the playoffs started make that a tough sell.
One solution is to find more minutes for Bryn Forbes along side strong defenders; two of the Bucks’ five-best three-player playoff combinations by net rating feature Forbes flanked by two of PJ Tucker, Brook Lopez, and Khris Middleton. Perhaps Milwaukee can pivot away from their defense-first philosophy for a game or two and elevate Forbes to the starting lineup? This would have Middleton assume his natural SF role and push PJ Tucker more to the 4, though Forbes would be a clear weak point in the already-depleted Milwaukee defense. Bobby Portis is another option to replace Giannis in the starting lineup, but then the Bucks are putting all three of their rotation bigs in one basket, leaving the bench supremely undersized.
No matter what, Bobby Portis and Bryn Forbes need to rarely cross paths, unless one is coming out as the other is going in. The Bucks’ three worst three-player playoff combinations by defensive rating feature both Forbes and Portis; having stellar defenders staffing the other three positions simply isn’t enough with the ball-movement that Atlanta applies.
Without Giannis, the entire focus of the Milwaukee Bucks needs to shift. Normally it would be unreasonable to ask for such drastic changes to how they play, given that Giannis’ eventual return will put everything back in its rightful place...but these are not normal circumstances. The Bucks have two more wins to secure in order to get to the NBA Finals, and there’s no way to know if Giannis will be available to play in any of the remaining games, much less at what capacity. You cannot simply survive until the next stretch of games when the next stretch of games doesn’t happen until October and you risk missing out on a chance to compete for a championship.
The Bucks need to dig deep, deeper than they did against the Brooklyn Nets, if they want to retake momentum in this series and punch their ticket for the last round of the postseason. It’s going to take everything they’ve got...and maybe, just maybe, they can pull it off.