The Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks meeting in the Eastern Conference Finals may not be the sexiest match-up on paper for the NBA, even with the star power of Giannis Antetokounmpo. But the on-court action should make up for the lack of storylines if Game 1 was any indication.
The Hawks continued their Cinderella run with a Trae Young-fueled 116-113 win in Game 1, but the game was never not close and the Bucks look like they should have more room to operate against Atlanta. The basketball promises to be more wide open, and the series does too.
Here are five takeaways from Game 1:
• Young has had his share of doubters through his first three NBA seasons. The first time I watched him play in person, I remember Kyle Lowry shredding him like tissue paper. The wispy Young could offer no resistance to the burly Lowry. Sure, Young could get his buckets, and he was capable of magic when passing the ball, but all his flash seemed irrelevant if the other team could score at will and then some. He was too small, too selfish and too much not like Luka Doncic, the Mavericks star the Hawks traded Young for on draft night in 2018. He seemed like a gimmick.
These playoffs have proven otherwise in the way his prolific regular season totals couldn’t. Coming into the opener of the Eastern Conference Finals, Young was averaging 29.1 points, 10.4 assists and — perhaps most significantly — nearly nine free throw attempts a game through his first 12 career playoff games. A 5-for-23 outing in Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers didn’t help his efficiency numbers, but the theme was evident: Young wasn’t scared of anything or anyone.
It was on display again against the Bucks in Game 1. Even while going against the likes of All-NBA defender Jrue Holiday and having to navigate a back line anchored by Brook Lopez and Antetokounmpo, Young easily found his way into, around and over the Bucks defence. He had 25 points on just 16 shots in the first half to go along with four assists. He was only more mesmerizing from there as he finished with 48 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds on 17-of-34 shooting. He’s now led the Hawks to road wins in the opening game of three straight playoff series. It’s getting hard to doubt him, or the Hawks.
• But are the Hawks ready for this, as a group? There aren’t too many teams that make the NBA Finals without some heavy playoff scar tissue picked up along the way. Players and teams generally have to fail before they break, through. Even the rapid ascension of the Golden State Warriors to three titles and five Finals was preceded by a pair of relatively early playoff exits. The Raptors took their licks before they won in 2019. LeBron James certainly had to earn his way to his Finals and titles, and we’ve been watching the Bucks and Antetokounmpo learn the hard way in real time for going on three years now.
This version of the Hawks have never been in the playoffs before. A good example of the lessons that need to be imprinted came in the fourth quarter when Hawks third-year guard Kevin Huerter touch-fouled Antetokounmpo at the rim in transition, rather than wrapping him up hard and forcing the Bucks star to earn his points at the line with his erratic free throw record. Instead, it was a dunk and a trip to the line as a bonus. Then the youthful Hawks got fooled twice on inbounds plays, leading to two more Antetokounmpo dunks. It briefly looked like the Hawks were going to let a chance to steal Game 1 on the road slip through their fingers. But Atlanta survived a wide-open three that Pat Connaughton air-balled; smartly put Antetokounmpo on the line with 5.3 seconds left – though he made both — and were able do just enough to get out with the win, putting pressure on the Bucks heading into Game 2.
• There is no one still playing in the playoffs with more pressure on them than two-time MVP Antetokounmpo. His statistics are unassailable. Through his first 11 playoff games this year, he was averaging 28.8 points and 13.6 rebounds a game along with 5.1 assists. He finished with 34 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists against Atlanta.
But the gaps in his game have never been more evident. He remains determined to shoot threes even if he’s converting just 19 per cent — he was 0-2 in Game 1. His free-throw shooting (53 per cent) is deeply problematic for a primary offensive option – though going 6-of-8 in Game 1 offered some hope. He drops the ball in traffic too much and for all his size and ability defensively, it would be interesting to see him either make more plays in terms of steals and blocks or more often take on a shutdown role. He’s effective as the world’s tallest free safety, but it feels like he should do more.
Despite all that, his team is in the conference finals and has a chance to win an NBA title from here without having to go through James, Joel Embiid, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic or likely Kawhi Leonard. In Game 1, he looked like a man ready to seize his chance. Gone was the hesitancy that he showed at times against the Nets in the second round. He was decisive with the ball as his assist totals suggested. He attacked with vigour, but moved it quickly when the moment required. Yet the Bucks are down 0-1 at home in a series where they are the heavy favourites. Somehow Antetokounmpo needs to do more or inspire his teammates to do the same. It’s the MVP’s burden.
• The Hawks should give a lot of NBA teams hope. It was just a year ago they were 20-47 – a record not even good enough to make the bubble. They were 26th on offence and 27th on defence. They have two recent lottery picks – Cam Reddish and De'Andre Hunter, who are injured and not in the rotation. And while they had a decent summer in free agency, Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic are hardly the kind of moves that many were predicting would transform any team — let alone the Hawks given their existing core was Young, Huerter, John Collins and Clint Capela.
But after a mid-season coaching change, the addition of Lou Williams at the trade deadline and the emergence of Young, the Hawks are just three wins from a spot in the NBA Finals. For a team like the Toronto Raptors, the Boston Celtics or the Miami Heat, the Hawks are reminders that sometimes your off-season moves don’t have to be home runs, they just need to properly address your weaknesses and compliment your strengths.
• The Bucks were the team that were thought to have the more impressive off season – of course it would have been even better if they had completed the sign-and-trade deal that was supposed to net them Bogdanovic, but that fell apart under a cloud of tampering allegations. They were still able to acquire Holiday and nab P.J. Tucker at the trade deadline. So far Holiday has been less than advertised as an All-NBA defender and former All-Star who the Bucks signed to a four-year contract extension in April for $135 million. After some uneven performances, his impact was hard to see – especially during the bulk of his 5-of-23 outing against the Brooklyn Nets in Game 7.
But on Wednesday, he looked inspired against Atlanta. He found time after trying to chase Young around to be the Bucks' most impactful offensive player. He finished with 33 points and 10 assists in 42 minutes and connected with Antetokounmpo on some fruitful pick-and-rolls down the stretch. His best game of the playoffs wasn’t enough, but it’s clear that the Bucks are going to need him to deliver more of the same if they are going to get to the Finals.