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Breakthrough: Bucks On Target to Make NBA Finals

Up 3-2, the Milwaukee Bucks have two more chances to punch their ticket to the championship round.

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NBA: Playoffs-Atlanta Hawks at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The last few weeks of following the Milwaukee Bucks has been exhausting. Since the playoffs started, we’ve:

The volatility of this Bucks team has been indescribably stressful. The fan confidence index would, if charted, be a cross section of a spiked pit: sharp inclines, immediate and equally sharp declines, up and down all the way across. There have been at least three points over the last two rounds where many – if not most – Bucks fans felt that it was the end of the road, and the most recent occurrence (Giannis’ knee injury) was downright existential.

And yet, here they are, the Bucks, leading the Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals going into Game 6 on Saturday night. While this next contest is in Atlanta, Milwaukee has the advantage in the series. If they win Game 6, they’re done with this round; a win in the sixth game fulfills the prophecy and earns the Bucks a Finals berth. If they lose...they have another opportunity, one last try, at home for Game 7.

Of course, winning in six is preferable to winning in seven, just as winning the series is preferable to losing. The Phoenix Suns have already dispatched each of their opponents and remain at the ready, preparing for the Finals to start next week. They would have the rest advantage against either the Bucks or Hawks, and given the injury status of major members of both Eastern Conference teams, Phoenix would have the health advantage as well.

But this is not a time for complacency, or for putting any carts ahead of any horses. The Bucks have a job to do, and it is no easy task.

The Atlanta Hawks have played with great energy thus far, and when Trae Young commands the offense he places a unique sort of pressure on the Bucks’ defense. With his status up in the air, Milwaukee will need to prepare for Game 6 the same way they prepared for Game 5, and adjust if Young’s availability changes. However, the Hawks have not thus far presented the statistical profile of an unbeatable opponent. For this series as a team, they are averaging nearly six fewer rebounds per game than Milwaukee (40.6 vs. 46.4), nearly six fewer assists (20.4 vs. 26.0), are committing more fouls (21.0 vs. 17.4) and turnovers (14.2 vs. 12.0). Their advantages on offense have seemingly made up the difference, but they lead the Bucks in three-point percentage by only a few points (33.1% vs. 29.3%) and free throw attempts (20.3 vs. 19.0), and actually trail in overall field goal percentage (46.8% vs. 48.0%).

So where has their success come from, if they’re not bombing from outside or piling up huge free throw advantages? It’s not coming in the restricted area, where the Hawks are converting a respectable 67.4% of their attempts. No, the Hawks’ offense is being buoyed by relying on shots in between: midrange jumpers and floaters. From 16 feet out to the three point line, Atlanta is taking 7.8 attempts per game and making 43.6% of them, but in the short midrange area (8-16 feet) they’re taking a whopping 17.2 shots and converting on a scorching 59.3% of those shots.

Let me post those figures again: Atlanta is currently taking over seventeen shots per game from between 8 and 16 feet from the basket (nearly 20% of their total field goals), and is making nearly 60% of them.

In the Hawks’ defense, those shots aren’t always terrible. Like Khris Middleton and the Tough Shot Express, a bad shot is only a bad shot if you’re not good at making them; the Hawks have made these shots. They were sixth overall in the NBA during the regular season, converting more than 2% more than the league average from that range. It’s a shot they’re comfortable with.

But here’s the catch: they averaged only 45.6% from that range in the regular season, where the league average is 43.4%. And their numbers have improved in the postseason overall...but only to 48.7%. Perhaps they’ve been practicing these shots more because of the matchup, and the Bucks’ defense generally has conceded these shots rather than better looks at the rim...but sooner or later, it stands to reason that the unsustainable 60% figure will dip. That’s bad for Atlanta.

The Bucks’ defense may be their ultimate stabilizer, but they still have to figure things out on offense. They seemingly can’t shoot in the playoffs, which is frustrating, but they make up for it by exploiting Atlanta’s rim defense and simply bludgeon their way to the rim. Particularly in Game 5, Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis were each invaluable to Milwaukee’s point production efforts, and the way they went about it was fairly straightforward: be large, play large, find space, and you’ll get an opportunity to score. Khris Middleton did his part from his normal spots, but the main catalyst was Jrue Holiday, who was aggressive as a driver from the jump and found windows to dump the ball off for a close-range shot.

Milwaukee simply must continue exploiting these advantages against the Hawks. Clint Capela can block a few shots, but even he isn’t big enough to stop Brook Lopez thundering into the paint. Bobby Portis played one of the best games of his career; the Bucks don’t need him to repeat that performance, they just need him to put out the same energy and make the same decisions. Most importantly, the Hawks’ perimeter defense needs to continue being attacked. Khris Middleton will draw Atlanta’s best defender routinely, but Jrue Holiday should be able to get a step on his man whenever he wants. He did that in Game 5 and led the Bucks to a win with 13 assists, a far more important offensive output than his 25 points.

The health status of Giannis Antetokounmpo looms large over everything this postseason, but the Bucks shouldn’t preoccupy themselves with his availability. They just need to repeat the process they followed in Game 5.

If the Bucks can do that, they’re NBA Finals bound.