2021 Playoffs: East Final | Bucks (3) vs. Hawks (5)
With Giannis Antetokounmpo and Trae Young ailing, who will step up to fill the void?
The series is now a best-of-three, and players who aren't used to being thrust into the spotlight will likely be counted on heavily in Game 5.
No one is suggesting that the grim responsibility of replacing an injured teammate is quite like a game of musical chairs, unless you like playing to the slow, mournful pace of a funeral dirge.
Still, the NBA playoff schedule is unforgiving. The music is going to stop. So when it’s time for the next game, ready or not, healthy or not, somebody is going to have to grab the seat vacated by that fallen friend. The more valuable that player is, the more urgent the situation.
Who’s it gonna be? Who’s going to fill the void opened for the Milwaukee Bucks by Giannis Antetokounmpo’s hyperextended left knee, with the two-time MVP out for Game 5 Thursday (8:30 ET, TNT) at Fiserv Forum and uncertain beyond that?
Who, for that matter, is going to pick up the slack on the other side for Atlanta, if point guard Trae Young is out again or limited by the bone bruise to his right foot suffered in Game 3?
With the Eastern Conference finals reduced now to a best-of-three series, members of the Hawks and Bucks who aren’t necessarily used to it will be thrust into the spotlight. To do their jobs, sure, but also to do a little more.
Young or even Antetokounmpo – whose cringe-worthy injury wound up being less severe than the Bucks and NBA fans feared, no structural damage or surgery to gouge into next season – might return healthy enough in time to dictate which team heads to the Finals. But short term, this could fall to teammates who self-nominate or simply wind up being that proverbial next man up.
“[In Game 4] we had to basically come up with a rotation with Trae being out,” Atlanta coach Nate McMillan said in a Zoom link with reporters Wednesday. “All of a sudden, we’ve got to bump guys up, move guys around. It really challenged you to come up with a rotation that will help these guys or put these guys in position where they can be productive with the lineup that they are playing with out on the floor.”
The Hawks already have gone through what the Bucks might be facing, with Antetokounmpo listed as doubtful. It worked out well for Atlanta in Game 4, thanks to a) Milwaukee playing too casually to start the game, even with Antetokounmpo involved, b) veteran Lou Williams stepping in seamlessly for Young with 21 points, and c) five other Atlanta players scoring in double figures while they all worked to hold Milwaukee below 40 percent shooting.
It was largely impromptu, too, with Young ruled out less than an hour before tipoff.
“He’s in uniform and he’s trying to give it a go,” McMillan said, “and 40 minutes before the game, he can’t. So, okay, we’ve got to adjust to him being out and we have to make that adjustment. You talk to your players, you talk to your team.”
Said Williams, on finding out he would be starting for the first time in 87 career playoff appearances: “Honestly, I was on the training table. Nate walked up, said ‘Trae is going to be out, so I’m going to start you.’ I said ‘Okay,’ and he walked off. That was the conversation. Like, it’s not like a ‘Remember the Titans’ thing that happens in the locker room. I promise you it don’t. That was the extent of our conversation, and we got ready for the game.”
If Milwaukee is going to do what the Hawks did, it will need Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton to play like the past All-Stars they’ve been. Center Brook Lopez probably will need to get to work in the low post, if Antetokounmpo isn’t around to claim that space for his rim attacks.
Then the Bucks will need a bench guy or two – Bobby Portis, Pat Connaughton, Bryn Forbes – to get hot or otherwise play above his head. P.J. Tucker already is starting in injured guard Donte DiVincenzo’s spot and one of the aforementioned probably will have to take Antetokounmpo’s spot at tipoff.
Not that coach Mike Budenholzer would expect any of those guys to overtly grab the team’s reins. He prefers that each player sticks to his habits and stays in his role, with the slack in production from, say, Antetokounmpo’s absence being picked up collectively.
He certainly wouldn’t expect one of the Bucks to walk into the locker room Thursday and say, “I got this” or “Climb on my backs, fellas.” Even if that’s what Middleton did last year in Game 5 against Miami, scoring 36 points in a game Antetokounmpo went out after just 11:29.
“Sometimes I would just put this in the context of leadership,” Budenholzer said. “There’s so many different ways to lead, and I think there’s a perception that you do it this one way. In this case, for somebody to step up and say, ‘I got this’ and do it, it may sound good and it may happen.
“But I think your actions are most important. You know, how you handle yourself tomorrow morning in preparing and getting ready for the game. We just need our guys to prepare and get ready to play and go play. If somebody feels the need to lead and to speak, they will.”
Atlanta looked like a more democratic team with Young out, with the ball moving and more involvement from what sometimes looks like the scoring star’s supporting cast.
“You start the game and everyone touches the ball,” wing Kevin Huerter said. “The ball moves side to side. You want everybody to find a rhythm. We don’t need people in transition, pulling up from the logo and offensively going one-on-one the way Trae can. It’s really not anybody’s game on this team.
“All five guys score before they have to call a timeout. That really set the tone for the rest of the game.”
McMillan said it’s not as if he or Budenholzer will script out entirely different game plans, as in “With Young” or “Without Young.” Even with a day or so to prepare, this stuff happens more organically and on the fly. “That’s part of the NBA, being able to adapt, being able to adjust,” the Hawks coach said, likening it to reacting to early foul trouble for a player in a given game.
Both teams have some experience soldiering on without their stars. The Bucks were 6-5 in games Antetokounmpo missed in the regular season. Atlanta is 6-4 without Young, counting the Game 4 victory.
“Guys get a chance to step up,” Holiday said. “Guys get a chance to make big plays and on the biggest stage. I feel like us playing without [Antetokounmpo] has given us some rhythm and just knowing what it’s like, making some adjustment that will be made.
“But at the end of the day, we’d rather play with him.”
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