The Eastern Conference Finals are here… and this is not the matchup we expected.
The fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks have arrived earlier than expected, with Trae Young making a leap and bringing John Collins and company along with him. They caught a break against an injured Joel Embiid, who faded late in games, but the Hawks also rose up to the challenge against the 76ers and made plays when it mattered, gaining confidence along the way.
The Bucks got lucky on the health front, too, against a depleted Nets team — and if Kevin Durant‘s size 18 feet don’t step on the line late in Game 7 the Bucks might be looking at a roster shakeup with a new coach coming in — but they got a hard-fought win. Was that the series win that put the Bucks over the hump? Will they play better in this series?
Here are three key things to watch, a series preview for the Eastern Conference Finals between the Bucks and Hawks.
1) Jrue Holiday covering Trae Young
Things are not going to get easier for Trae Young.
He spent the last series with 6’11” of Ben Simmons draped all over him — the guy second in Defensive Player of the Year voting. Young still averaged 29 points and 10.9 assists a game against the 76ers, but he wasn’t efficient doing it, shooting 39.2% overall and 32.3% from 3 for the series. Look at it this way, Young’s 53.9 true shooting percentage against Philly was five percentage points lower than his regular season average.
Now Young will see Jrue Holiday — an All-Defensive Team member himself who is both physical and has quick feet — every game. Behind Holiday is a better connected defensive team in the Bucks than the Hawks saw last round. Both Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo serve as rim protectors and a difficult second line of defense. The Bucks will primarily use a drop coverage that opens up Young’s floater game and some lobs to John Collins and Clint Capela, but overall, the Hawks face a team that has been better defensively in these playoffs — five points per 100 possessions better than the 76ers.
It means the Hawks will need role players to step up again, as we saw from Kevin Huerter in Game 7. Young is not going to win the Hawks a series on his own, he’s going to need big games from the Hawks supporting cast.
2) Can the Hawks slow down the Bucks in transition?
When the Bucks get out and run — when Antetokounmpo gets rolling downhill — they are far more difficult to stop. The Greek Freak gets to the rim, and if he gets walled off, he has become more adept at finding shooters at the arc to make opponents pay for collapsing into the paint.
Atlanta has seen teams run against them a lot this postseason — Philadelphia wanted to play fast — but have done a respectable slowing them down, giving up a 123.8 defensive rating on transition plays in the postseason (ninth in the league; stats via Cleaning the Glass). They will need to do even better this series.
The Hawks have shined defensively in the halfcourt, including keeping teams from getting easy buckets at the rim. Teams are shooing just 60.8% against them in the restricted area this postseason (third-best rim defense in the league). It’s been the same in the rest of the paint. The Hawks must keep that up this series, if the Bucks get their easy baskets at the rim they will take this series running away.
3) Can Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bucks handle the pressure?
Young and the Hawks were not supposed to be here. Not yet anyway. Their early arrival on the national scene has them as the feel-good story of the playoffs (the Suns may challenge for that crown). The pressure is off the Hawks; they are playing with house money.
For Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, there will never be a better chance to win a title. That brings pressure.
This is why Antetokounmpo re-signed in Milwaukee, why the franchise traded so much for Holiday. The Bucks three stars are in their prime — Antetokounmpo is 26, Khris Middleton 29, Holiday 31 — and the road has unfolded perfectly for them. No Durant or James Harden remaining, no Joel Embiid, and out West no LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard (probably, but it was Leonard who owned Antetokounmpo in 2019). This is the Bucks’ best chance to win a title, because next season the Nets may well be healthy, as might the 76ers, the Hawks and Knicks and others will be better, LeBron should be healthy out West, plus other good teams will be lined up in their path. This season, the road is much more open.
The Bucks have folded under that pressure in the past.
Is this year different? Can Antetokounmpo and company get a validating title, or is it all too much for them again? The Bucks have not looked consistently elite this postseason, and they will need to if they are to close it all out.
Prediction: Bucks in 5. The Hawks can make a series of it, but with Bogdan Bogdanovic playing through a clearly sore knee, no De’Andre Hunter, or (probably) Cam Reddish, the lack of role players and wing depth will catch up with the Hawks. The Bucks will grab their chance.