The Milwaukee Bucks got good news about Giannis Antetokounmpo on Wednesday — he reportedly has no ligament damage to his hyperextended right knee — but it came with a side of bad news: In the short term, they’re in trouble. Antetokounmpo is out for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday, and his status beyond that is up in the air. As Milwaukee prepares for life without its franchise player, it can learn a thing or two from its opponent.
The Atlanta Hawks didn’t just survive without Trae Young on Tuesday, they thrived. As easy as it might be to wave away Atlanta’s 110-88 victory as a product of Antetokounmpo’s injury, it led 62-52 when Antetokounmpo left the game and outscored the Bucks 54-43 in his 24 minutes. This was possible because the Hawks made the best of a bad situation — while Young’s absence meant they didn’t have a ball-dominant star to put pressure on the defense, it also meant that the defense couldn’t focus on that ball-dominant star. Atlanta’s attack was more balanced than normal, and it did not lack for playmaking: Lou Williams scored a team-high 21 points (on 7 for 9 shooting!), six players scored in double digits and Williams, Kevin Huerter and Bogdan Bogdanovic had 20 assists between them.
The Bucks will not have three creators in their starting lineup without Antetokounmpo, and they do not have anyone like Danilo Gallinari on the bench. If there is a silver lining to this injury, though, it’s that they will be forced to address the offensive issues they’ve had throughout the playoffs. It is remarkable that Milwaukee is two wins from the NBA Finals despite scoring a dreadful 93.8 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt in 15 postseason games, per Cleaning The Glass. (In the regular season they scored 102 per 100, tied for the fifth-best mark in the league.)
Of the Bucks’ many problems in the halfcourt, shooting is the most obvious. After making 38.9 percent of their 3s in the regular season, they’ve shot just 30.6 percent in the playoffs and 29 percent in the conference finals. Aside from Khris Middleton and Bryn Forbes, nobody on the rotation has much gravity, but off-the-dribble shooting is a more glaring issue: Middleton is shooting 2 for 19 (10.5 percent) on pull-up 3s against Atlanta and 27.6 percent in the playoffs; Jrue Holiday has made 25 percent of his pull-up 3s in the series and 29.3 percent in the playoffs.
The barrage of bricks is not merely bad luck. Milwaukee’s roster is full of adequate 3-point shooters, but light on deadly ones. Far too often, the offense has been undisciplined, impatient and, at its worst, purposeless. Against the Brooklyn Nets, the Bucks could blame some of it on the switching defense they were facing, but Brooklyn wasn’t switching Antetokounmpo’s ball screens. Against Atlanta, they can only blame themselves.
On an individual level, the pressure naturally shifts to Middleton and Holiday. Middleton took over Game 3 in Atlanta and came through when Milwaukee desperately needed it in Games 3 and 6 against the Nets. These offensive performances, however, have overshadowed his numerous mediocre ones — in the other three conference finals games, he’s averaged 15.3 points on 40.4 percent true shooting. Holiday has been fantastic defensively, and his versatility on both ends has given the Bucks a dimension they’ve missed since they let Malcolm Brogdon go, but aside from the first two games of this series he hasn’t had a particularly efficient game in the last month.
They both need to be sharp, and they need to be a part of a more concerted team-wide effort to move the ball, exploit the Hawks’ weaker defenders and generate easier shots. Milwaukee does not just have to make up for the 28.2 points per (playoff) game that will be out of the lineup; it has to make up for the transition points it won’t be scoring, the stops it won’t be getting and the fouls it won’t be drawing. Antetokounmpo’s greatness in those areas gave the Bucks room for error in the halfcourt.
Presumably, Middleton and Holiday will be running a fair amount of high pick-and-rolls. The Hawks aren’t going to be afraid to go under against Holiday, though, and they shouldn’t be afraid to trap Middleton. Do not be surprised if Atlanta ramps up its ball pressure and physicality in order to tire them out, particularly if Kris Dunn and Cam Reddish remain in the rotation. The Bucks’ enemies are predictability and stagnation — if the first action they run doesn’t work, they need to play the second side instead of resorting to isolations.
They also need Brook Lopez to be a threat as a roller and in the post, not just as a shooter and on the offensive glass. They need to free up Forbes for 3s off dribble-handoffs, pindowns and pick-and-pops. Bobby Portis, such a factor in Games 2 and 3, needs to make his presence felt again, even though the Hawks seem to have wised up to his leak-outs.
Six years ago, Mike Budenholzer coached Atlanta to 60 regular-season wins without a traditional go-to guy. When Young went down, the Hawks embodied the spirit of that 2015 team and prevented their former coach from getting closer to the Finals. For Budenholzer’s Bucks to respond, they must play the same way.