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

Series Preview: Bucks' breakthrough up against ahead-of-schedule Hawks

The tested Bucks return to the conference finals, this time against an upstart Hawks team playing with nothing to lose. Is this their year?

Are the Bucks too big and too much for the Hawks?

The Milwaukee Bucks don’t have to worry about that uphill climb to get out of the East this postseason. Facing and advancing against nemeses Miami, Brooklyn and Philadelphia, the last two without homecourt advantage, was going to be the Bucks’ tall order. Until the Atlanta Hawks crashed the party by putting down the Sixers in seven.

Now Atlanta is the team trying to punch up all the way to the 2021 Finals. As the No. 5 seed, that kind of comes with the territory. But Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter and the rest of the Hawks surely have the Bucks’ attention and respect after knocking off both the Knicks and the East’s top seed.

That “young, hungry team,” as Philadelphia’s Tobias Harris called the Hawks, will be making Atlanta’s first conference finals appearance since 2015. Milwaukee is back for the second time in three seasons, hoping to get it right after disappointing playoff exists in 2018 and 2019. This much is certain — there will be fresh blood in The Finals from the East. The Bucks haven’t reached the championship round since 1974 and the Hawks were still based in St. Louis when they last went in 1961.

Three things to watch

1. The point guard matchup. Milwaukee has to shift gears significantly now to cope with the electric and elusive Trae Young. Brooklyn had no one who played at Young’s revved-up pace, and while the Bucks were near the top in pace as a team, this will put more individual pressure on point guard Jrue Holiday as well as the bigs — Brook Lopez, Giannis Antetokounmpo, others — who will need to have Holiday’s back. Holiday, meanwhile, shot poorly against the Nets, just 36% overall and 26% from 3-point range, so if defense drains his offense any more, Milwaukee’s top playmaking alternative to “The Greek Freak” might suffer.

2. Antetokounmpo with the scent of a ring. Clearly this is Milwaukee’s and its two-time Kia MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo’s best chance to reach The Finals, the next obvious step in his ascendancy as one of the league’s all-time greats. An exit at this round will only bring more impatience and nagging criticisms, especially with the Bucks as favorites now. The 6-foot-11 force of nature was close to his overall numbers in three games against Atlanta this season — 24.3 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 4.7 apg, 64.3% shooting — but he’ll need to play smarter than he did in the early games against Brooklyn. As in, laying off the 3-point attempts and (hard as it might be) tightening up his free-throw routine to erase that as a focal point for Hawks fans and the referees.

3. Bogdanovic hits Milwaukee. The Hawks’ lively 6-foot-6 wing was hurt when these teams met back in January, so he will be making his season debut at Fiserv Forum in Games 1 and 2 this week. Why does that matter? Bogdanovic was the one who got away last offseason, a restricted free agent over whom the Bucks jumped the gun in trying to work a sign-and-trade with Sacramento. Milwaukee got penalized for what technically became tampering, losing a future second-round pick and the chance to land Bogdanovic. He missed 25 games but settled in to average 16.4 points and shoot 43.8% on 3-pointers. Bogdanovic averaged 14.6 points for Atlanta in the first two rounds before a sore leg against the Sixers limited him to four points in Game 7. Then again, if the Bogdanovic deal worked out, would Milwaukee have managed to get PJ Tucker at the trade deadline from Houston? The backstory makes Bogey in Milwaukee worth watching.

Number to know

Milwaukee's size and length meet Atlanta's speed and shooting in a best-of-7 battle to reach the Finals.

11.9 — On average, the Bucks have held their two playoff opponents to 11.9 fewer points per 100 possessions than they scored in the regular season. Milwaukee had the No. 1 defense in the first round, holding the Miami Heat to just 95.4 per 100, 15.2 fewer than they scored in the regular season. In the conference semis, the only defense better than that of the Bucks was the one they played. They were outscored over seven games, but held the Nets to just 107.3 points per 100 possessions, 9.9 fewer than the league’s No. 1 offense scored in the regular season. Brooklyn was obviously dealing with key injuries, but dealt with the same when they recorded the most efficient offensive season in NBA history.

The Bucks are the only team to have won a game in these playoffs while scoring less than a point per possession on their own end of the floor, and they’ve done it in each round. (The Hawks have shown the ability to win ugly themselves, winning Games 4 and 7 of their series against Philadelphia while scoring 104 and 103 points per 100 possessions.)

Milwaukee ranks in the top five in all of the “four factors” on defense, No. 1 in both defensive rebounding percentage and opponent free throw rate (19.3 attempts per 100 shots from the field). Jimmy Butler’s rate of 34.4 attempts per 100 shots from the field (22/64) in the first round was much higher than that, but down from 56.5 in the regular season. The Bucks will be in good shape if they can similarly suppress the free throw rate of Trae Young, who had 19 and 11 attempts in the Hawks’ last two wins of the conference semis.

— John Schuhmann

The pick

Young has been on of the 2021 postseason’s breakout stars, grabbing the NBA spotlight that burns so bright at this time of year to make himself, at 22, a “gate attraction” (do folks still use that term?) and the first priority for opponents game-planning against the Hawks. Atlanta’s transformation after Nate McMillan took over at the start of March for fired coach Lloyd Pierce, from 14-20 to 27-11 plus 8-4 so far in the playoffs, has been remarkable. But — and you knew it was coming, right? — Milwaukee has the edge in experience, the series’ biggest star in Antetokounmpo and, if you picked teams playground-style, three of the top four picks. The Bucks had their hands full against Kevin Durant but survived, and now they’ve got home court. Bucks in 5.

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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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