NBA Eastern Conference Final Preview: Can Giannis vanquish Hawks, doubters?

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo scores past Atlanta Hawks forward Solomon Hill on April 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Ben Gray)

Well, it’s safe to say no one saw this matchup coming.

Prior to the season, sure — few would’ve batted an eye at the Milwaukee Bucks making the Eastern Conference final. But little more than a week ago they were down 2–0 to a title-favourite Brooklyn Nets team, and people were already writing obituaries.

The Atlanta Hawks, meanwhile, were 14-20 on March 1 after firing head coach Lloyd Pierce, and not all that many people had them making the playoffs in the first place — let alone winning two rounds over favoured teams.

But here we are. The Bucks gutted out a seven-game victory over the Nets despite a dominant performance from Kevin Durant, and the Hawks did the same versus a weirdly fascinating Philadelphia 76ers team that seemed to be going through an on-court existential crisis.

So: Bucks! Hawks! Let’s do this!

Here’s a closer look at this series, complete with the big storyline to watch for, the series’ key matchup, X-factors on both sides and, of course, our series prediction.

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The Big Storyline

As mentioned above, the Bucks looked down for the count after dropping Game 2 to the Nets. In that game, their leader and perennial all-star Giannis Antetokounmpo scored just 18 points on eight-of-15 shooting, which included zero of three from three-point land. He was also just two of seven from the free-throw line. He cleaned the glass to the tune of 11 boards in 30 minutes, but couldn’t help slow down Durant, who scored 32 points in 32 minutes.

When the buzzer sounded, the Bucks had lost by 39, and critics were questioning everything from Mike Budenholzer’s job security to Antetokounmpo’s greatness. The question of the day: If Giannis was truly deserving of multiple MVP trophies, why did he keep flaming out in the playoffs? Did he have what it took to lead a team to victories against top competition in a seven-game series, or was he eminently figure-out-able?

The rest of the series went a long way to answering those questions. Giannis averaged 34.2 points on 56.1 per cent shooting over the final five games, and came up biggest in Game 7 when he poured in 40 points in 50 minutes as the Bucks moved on in overtime.

Could he go toe to toe with the NBA’s greatest in the playoffs? Check. Could he come up big in crunch time of a tightly contested deciding game? Check.

But, that said, some of the offensive issues people had been harping on persisted. The free-throw shooting is an ongoing issue. Also, Giannis is taking 4.3 three pointers per game in the playoffs, and hitting just 19.1 per cent of them. According to NBA.com, that’s the worst mark among still-active players taking at least two threes per game. (The next-worst mark? Jrue Holiday. More on him in a second.)

It’s a funhouse-mirror version of the Ben Simmons situation in Philadelphia, but it stems from the same problem — neither is a terribly effective jump shooter, particularly beyond the three-point arc. But where Simmons has decided never to shoot from three (or from anywhere else, suddenly) despite playing at a position that demands he do so, Giannis keeps taking them with little success despite having a role carved out for him as a true, mobile, physically overpowering big man.

Long story short: How — and how well — Giannis plays against the Hawks, especially now that he’s made it to his second conference final in three seasons and is favoured for a second-straight time, will be dissected in a major way.

Atlanta centre Clint Capela is nearly as a good defensive foil for him in the paint as there is in the NBA today, but nowhere near as versatile. And if all goes according to plan, and Giannis gets some help from his teammates (again, more on that in a second), this series could be the next step in the coronation of one of the NBA’s most celebrated players.

Key Matchup: Trae Young vs. Jrue Holiday

Amazingly, both of these men shot five for 23 from the floor in decisive Game 7s that their teams still managed to win. But using stats from the playoffs as a whole, this is a mismatch the likes of which the World Boxing Association would never sanction:

PTS/G FG% 3PM/G 3FG% REB/G AST/G
Trae Young 29.1 41.3 2.8 33.0 2.7 10.4
Jrue Holiday 15.2 39.8 1.4 24.6 5.9 7.5

While Young’s stats on the whole took a hit from his wildly off Game 7 against the 76ers, this from ESPN’s Tim Bontemps during Game 6 about sums up his playoff performance on the whole to date:

Young is second among all active players in points per game (first if you don’t count Kawhi Leonard, who is out indefinitely at the moment) and far away in first with assists, which is an element of his game that went through the roof this season. His percentages are also affected by the sheer amount and difficulty of shots he takes as the No. 1 option on offence for the Hawks.

Meanwhile, Holiday just straight up had a rough series against the Nets, shooting 36.1 per cent and barely ticking above 15 points per game despite the fact he was playing roughly 40 minutes a night, and that both James Harden and Kyrie Irving were absent for parts of the series.

This was not what the Bucks had in mind when they sent Eric Bledsoe, George Hill and a boatload of draft capital to New Orleans for him last November.

That said, Holiday at least saved his best for last in Game 7 versus Brooklyn, scoring nine of his 13 points and assisting on two major buckets in the fourth quarter.

It will be interesting to see how the two starting PGs match up in this series. Young has the quickness advantage, but Holiday is no slouch on the defensive end. And while Young seemed to be returning to earth offensively a bit toward the end of the 76ers series, Holiday is long, long overdue for seeing a few shots fall.

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X-Factors

Hawks: Kevin Huerter
The man who did more than anyone to help the Hawks weather the storm of Young’s poor shooting night in Game 7 against the 76ers, Huerter scored 27 points on 10 of 18 shooting.

Atlanta can’t count on that every night, but the sophomore guard also had games of 20, 17 and 15 against Philadelphia, so this was no aberration. That said, he combined for three points in two of the other games of the series.

Huerter’s contributions are needed all the more as he’s filling in for De’Andre Hunter, who has been ruled out for the rest of the season with an injury. Bogdan Bogdanovic is also dealing with knee soreness, and his status is uncertain for the start of the series.

Bucks: Khris Middleton
This is a pretty good X-factor, as X-factors go. Occasionally the forgotten man in Milwaukee, Middleton shot uncharacteristically poorly against the Nets — just 40.8 per cent on 21 shots per game.

But Middleton is just one series removed from shooting a characteristic 49.2 per cent against the Heat, and is a reliable source of points at the line. He’s hitting 87.3 per cent of his shots at the line in the playoffs on 5.0 attempts per game.

Plus, without Hunter in the lineup, Atlanta doesn’t have a great option to defend Middleton one on one.

Prediction

Bucks in five.

The Hawks making it to this point is an incredible feat, and the future of this young core is getting brighter all the time. But they’re dealing with more injuries to key players than the Bucks (who are missing only Donte DiVincenzo), and lost the season series between these two teams 2–1.

Milwaukee, meanwhile, has the best defensive rating in the playoffs, even after facing off against Durant in full supernova mode. They also have Giannis Antetokounmpo with a ton left to prove and a head full of steam coming off one of the best games of his life.

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