2021 Playoffs: East Final | Bucks (3) vs. Hawks (5)
East finals notebook: With Giannis out, Lopez takes it inside to power Bucks
Antetokounmpo's absence opens up a chance for Bucks' 7-footer to rock the rim -- and defend it -- like he hadn't in years.
The Milwaukee Bucks are one win from The Finals, a destination they’ve been trying to reach since Giannis Antetokounmpo developed into one of the best players in the world. But to get there, the Bucks will probably have to win another game without the two-time MVP, who’s listed as “doubtful” for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals in Atlanta on Saturday (8:30 ET, TNT).
Ending this series in six games certainly isn’t an impossible task, as the Bucks just delivered one of the biggest wins in franchise history without Antetokounmpo in Thursday’s Game 5. As expected, the Bucks’ defense wasn’t as good without last season’s Kia Defensive Player of the Year. In fact, playing without Trae Young (listed as “questionable” for Game 6), the Hawks’ offense had its most efficient performance since Game 1 of the conference semifinals, scoring 112 points on 95 possessions. But on the other end, the Bucks had their most efficient game (123 on 96) since Game 2 of the first round.
Here are some numbers, notes and film in anticipation of Game 6, with the Hawks trying to take the series to a Game 7 on Monday.
1. Still dominant at the rim
It was written in this space before Game 5 that “the Hawks’ need for rim protection is reduced” with Antetokounmpo out. At that point, he had 88 more restricted-area buckets in the playoffs (124) than any of his teammates (Brook Lopez was second with 36). And then Milwaukee went and outscored the Hawks, 46-18, in the restricted area without him in Game 5.
With Antetokounmpo not occupying the paint or requiring spacing around his drives, the 7-foot Lopez was able to play more like a traditional center. Sometimes, that was as a roll man; according to Second Spectrum tracking, Lopez set 17 ball-screens in Game 5, after averaging just eight through the first four games. Two third-quarter buckets came on rolls to the rim, where the Hawks’ weak-side defense was lacking:
Other times, Lopez was stationed in the “dunker spot” (on the baseline, on either side of the paint), where he benefited from Holiday getting into the paint and drawing help from his defender.
And then there were two straight possessions late in the third quarter where Holiday was able to get baseline and drop the ball off to Lopez diving from the weak side.
The Hawks’ played terrific defense in Game 4, improving the transition issues that plagued them in Game 3 and helping more on Antetokounmpo’s 1-on-1 drives to the basket. But their defense took a big step backward on Thursday, with Lopez’s damage in the paint being, largely, a function of their inability to stop dribble penetration and their poor weak-side rotations.
Through five games, the Bucks’ 43.2 points per game in the restricted area are the most any team has averaged in the conference finals or Finals in the 25 years for which we have shot-location data. And we saw on Thursday that that kind of dominance at the rim isn’t totally dependent on the two-time MVP.
2. 1-on-1 vs. Lopez
In Game 2, the Bucks started having Bobby Portis switch screens, and he was able to follow up some of those switches with easy baskets on the other end of the floor by establishing early position under the basket against the Hawks’ guards (that he had just switched onto). In Game 5, the Bucks went all-in on switching, having Lopez switch all screens as well.
One of Lopez’s 10 restricted-area buckets was the result of a Portis-esque leak out after switching onto Kevin Huerter. But the adjustment had a bigger affect on defense, where the Hawks weren’t able to take advantage of Lopez trying to defend them on the perimeter.
According to Synergy tracking, the Hawks had nine isolation possessions against Lopez in Game 5. And they scored just four points on those isos, with their only success coming on a tough floater by Lou Williams and a Lopez foul on John Collins.
The first Lopez switch was on the first possession of the game, and it seemed to take Kevin Huerter by surprise:
Huerter thought he could take Lopez off the dribble, but the big man was able to stay in front of him and blocked his shot.
If Young plays in Game 6, it will be interesting to see if Lopez switches screens for the Hawks’ point guard. If he does, it will be more interesting to see if Young (recovering from a bone bruise in his right foot) has the requisite quickness to beat the big man off the dribble.
3. Clock time contrast
As noted above, the Bucks have dominated the restricted area, where they’ve outscored the Hawks by exactly 100 points over five games. Counting non-restricted area shots, Milwaukee is +19.6 per game in the paint, while Atlanta is +13.8 per game outside the paint. (Free throws are almost even.)
There’s a similar contrast in regard to the shot clock. As noted before Game 4, the Bucks have been able to generate early offense while preventing the Hawks from doing the same. The switching is a part of the latter element, and adding Lopez to the list of screen switchers had the Hawks flattened out and playing late into the clock again in Game 5.
Over five games, the Bucks have outscored the Hawks (on field goals) by 91 points (18.2 per game) in the first 12 seconds of the shot clock. The Hawks, who have shot relatively well late in the clock, are a +54 (+10.8 per game) in the last 12 seconds.
4. How important is the start?
The Bucks’ success on Thursday was more about what they did early in the game than what they did early in the clock. The Lopez-switching adjustment had the Atlanta offense on its heels a bit, and the Atlanta defense was even worse. The Bucks scored on their first 13 possessions of the night, shooting 12-for-17, with the Hawks unable to rebound any of the five misses.
There have been 10 games in these playoffs in which one team has never held a lead, and three of the 10 have been in this series. The Hawks never led in Games 2 and 5, while the Bucks never led in Game 4.
The Bucks did recover from an early, 15-point deficit in Game 3, winning the game with a 22-5, fourth-quarter run (with Young somewhat hobbled by his foot injury). But in three of the five games, an early lead has held up.
The Bucks have been the best first-quarter team in the playoffs, outscoring their opponents by 15.1 points per 100 possessions in the opening 12 minutes. The Hawks may need another start like they had in Game 4 (they led 15-5) to stay alive.
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