2021 Playoffs: East Final | Bucks (3) vs. Hawks (5)

Bucks struggle in Game 4 even before losing Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis Antetokounmpo injures his left knee midway through the third quarter as the Bucks struggled throughout Game 4.

Giannis Antetokounmpo suffered a hyperextended left knee in the third quarter of Game 4.

As traumatic and emotional as it was for the Milwaukee Bucks to see franchise player Giannis Antetokounmpo go down — and out — with a hyperextended left knee in the third quarter Tuesday night, they’ll be living with this too in the hours until Game 5 against Atlanta in the Eastern Conference finals:

Antetokounmpo’s exit simply added injury to insult.

What they were doing up until the point their superstar left, in the way they began Game 4 and played for most of the first half at State Farm Arena, had been insulting. Insulting to their fans, to the NBA at large and even to themselves.

To be gifted with the chance to face the feisty but inexperienced Hawks without their most troublesome player, Trae Young, and seize a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, only to show up unfocused and halfhearted, yeah, that was insulting. Insulting to the Hawks, certainly, with Milwaukee coasting along from tipoff as if its triumph were inevitable, a question merely of when instead of if.

On the basis of the game’s first 29 minutes or so, the Bucks got what they deserved. A 2-2 tie, some restless nights now awaiting Antetokounmpo’s status for Game 4 Thursday and beyond, perhaps a sick feeling in their stomachs that will be hard to shake knowing they’d come so close to The Finals only to wave in now these clouds of doubt.

“Losing a player stinks,” Bucks forward P.J. Tucker said. “But we didn’t come out with energy tonight. We just thought we was going to walk in and win the game. We didn’t do anything to show that we wanted to win this game tonight. We were flat, and our guy’s injury was just another piece of the puzzle to us losing.”

The Bucks' lack of preparation and urgency was evident in their Game 4 rout.

Antetokounmpo’s left knee, the prognosis after an MRI exam Wednesday and the uncertain impact it all might have on what remains of Milwaukee’s postseason might obscure how poorly the Bucks performed before he got hurt. So might the stories citing all the injuries that have pockmarked these playoffs, with nine All-Stars having lost games so far — Joel Embiid, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown in the East, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, Anthony Davis out West — and Giannis on the verge of making it 10. (Young doesn’t quite qualify, since he wasn’t an All-Star this season.)

They shouldn’t.

The Bucks fell behind instantly for the second consecutive game, trailing 15-5 in the opening minutes to an Atlanta team playing with house money on top of house money: Few outside their locker room expected the Hawks to reach the conference championship, and even fewer would have given them much hope to beat this opponent with Young sidelined.

The 6-foot-1 point guard had exasperated Milwaukee’s defense with deep 3-pointers and seemingly simple floaters for three games, averaging 32.7 points. His usage rate, already the NBA’s sixth-highest during the season (33.0), was up to 41.1 in this series.

Having Young sit, then, with a bone bruise on his right foot (suffered when he stepped on a referee’s foot in Game 3) was like having your front teeth yanked, then trying to smile. Yet Young’s teammates didn’t just respond, they made the Bucks look silly.

Khris Middleton speaks with the media following Milwaukee's Game 4 loss to Atlanta.

Six of them scored in double figures. Aging sixth man Lou Williams assumed Young’s spot and probably should have been checked for an elixir after scoring 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting with eight assists. Bogdan Bogdanovic, who has been playing on a sore knee, sank six 3-pointers on his way to 20 points.

Atlanta’s bench, with Williams’ work pilfered by the starting lineup, outscored the Bucks’ 35-24.

By halftime, Milwaukee’s proud defense had given up 51 points to the shorthanded Hawks, while its prolific offense scored only 38. Having scored 188 points in the paint in Games 1-3, the Bucks had only 14 halfway through Tuesday. They did Atlanta a favor by shooting from the outside and did it badly: 5-of-23 from the arc through those first two quarters.

The Hawks tied up the Eastern Conference finals despite Trae Young being out.

Oh, and Antetokounmpo was right there with them. Scoreless in the first quarter, he had six points by the break along with three airballs — one 3-pointer and two free throws. He, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday had more turnovers (nine) in the half than field goals (eight).

Imagine if the Bucks had started aggressively and stayed that way. They might have doused some of the Hawks’ confidence, knowing Young was a DNP, instead of pumping up their confidence.

Who’s to say if Antetokounmpo and Clint Capela even meet at the rim the way they did with 7:14 left in the third quarter, their legs tangling, with Capela’s right leg leveraging hard against against “The Greek Freak’s” left? Had the Bucks been up by double digits at that point, maybe the tactics and decisions would have been completely different.

“They came in with desperation, the desperation that they didn’t want to go down 3-1,” Holiday said. “And we didn’t have that same fight at the beginning of the game. We tried to get it back but when [the other team starts] start off that hot two games in a row, it’s hard to really just find that energy and momentum and come back in the game.

“Every game, we’ve got to come out like it’s our last game.”

It’s not, not yet. But what happened in the first half was a reminder to the Bucks and everyone else not to “play with your food,” letting a series or a game last longer than it should, lest an emboldened opponent or cruel fate get traction.

And the sight of Antetokounmpo grimacing and holding his left knee on the baseline at State Farm Arena is an unwelcome metaphor for Milwaukee and its title hopes right about now.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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