After a tough Game 3 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, the Atlanta Hawks found their way in Game 4, despite their star guard, Trae Young, being sidelined with a bone bruise after twisting his ankle on an official’s foot on Sunday. Lou Williams led all scorers as Atlanta claimed a 110-88 victory to even the series.
The immediate focus after the game is the health of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who exited in the second half with a hyperextended left knee after an ugly fall. In his absence, Milwaukee struggled to find any rhythm on offense, scoring just 36 points after he left the game. For the Hawks’ part, center Clint Capela departed late after taking an elbow to the face in the fourth quarter, meaning Atlanta might have two players uncertain for a pivotal Game 5.
Do the Bucks have a shot at winning the series without Giannis? Can the Hawks continue to get contributions from their key reserves? Here are five things our NBA experts took away from Game 4.
Can the Bucks survive without Giannis?
The image of an NBA star lying in pain on the hardwood is an all-too-frequent sighting in 2021. The league endured another on Tuesday night approximately five minutes into the third quarter when Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo challenged an alley-oop lob to Hawks center Clint Capela, landed awkwardly on his left leg, and immediately tumbled to the floor beneath the basket.
Antetokounmpo, who has averaged 40.6 minutes in each of the Bucks’ last eight playoff games coming into Tuesday night, was already hampered with tightness in his left calf that had him listed as probable on the injury report for Games 3 and 4.
Uncertainty around Antetokounmpo’s availability would present a serious challenge for a Bucks team already down a starter (Donte DiVincenzo) and with limited depth. Among Milwaukee’s reserves, Bobby Portis is the only big man who has played meaningful minutes. Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton will have to direct an offense that is prone to stagnation when the Bucks are struggling from distance.
Holiday is an excellent pick-and-roll player (18th in point per chance among 101 players with at least 500 pick-and-roll opportunities this season) who receives fewer opportunities as a point guard than he might in a more conventional offense. Whether he’s working with Middleton or Brook Lopez, Holiday will have to tap that skill.
Middleton will need to conjure the spirit of Game 4 of last year’s conference semis against Miami, when he willed Milwaukee to their only win of the series with 36 points after Antetokounmpo departed after playing only 11 minutes. We’ve seen glimpses of that Middelton, as recently as Milwaukee’s Game 3 win when he scored 38 points. One of the most lethal high-degree-of-difficulty shot makers in the NBA, Middleton’s ability to create out of nothing will be vital in a half-court offense with creative challenges.
The Bucks will have to manufacture other streams of offense, be it Lopez in the post, perimeter actions that free up Forbes or Connaughton, or — loath as they usually are to do it — hunt mismatches. Whatever the case, Antetokounmpo’s absence will severely limit the Bucks’ flexibility because it’s hard to experiment with 5-man units when the number of trusted players has dwindled to not much more than that.
Not that Atlanta (minus Trae Young and DeAndre Hunter), the LA Clippers (minus Kawhi Leonard and their two bigs), or Los Angeles Lakers, Brooklyn, Denver or the long list of impact players who have been sidelined this postseason will offer consolation. Loss is the norm in the 2021 playoffs.
— Kevin Arnovitz
The utility of Lou Williams
In a season defined by injuries to star players, the Hawks were lucky to have Lou Williams make his first career playoff start in place of Trae Young. In a fortuitous deadline deal, Atlanta got Williams and two future second-round picks in exchange for Rajon Rondo, who was ineffective after signing with the Hawks as a free agent last fall.
That trade represented the Clippers’ gamble that “Playoff Rondo” would reemerge in L.A. Instead, Rondo has fallen out of the rotation each of the last two rounds. After playing 35 minutes Tuesday, Williams has now seen more action in the playoffs than Rondo.
Atlanta is thrilled Williams reconsidered after pondering retirement following the trade. Without Young, the Hawks badly needed Williams’ ability to create his own shot. He set the tone early, scoring seven points in the first five-plus minutes as Atlanta took a 15-5 lead, and finished with a hyper-efficient 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting in addition to handing out eight assists — three on Young-esque lobs to Clint Capela — with just one turnover.
At this stage of his career, Williams is no match for Young as a shooter and distributor. For one night, however, he was the understudy Atlanta needed.
— Kevin Pelton
Middleton? Paging Khris Middleton?
Does Khris Middleton have any more of that magic from Game 3? Milwaukee sure needs some the rest of this series.
He was spectacular in the Bucks’ win in Atlanta on Sunday, scoring 20 of his 38 points in the fourth quarter. But Middleton hasn’t made much of an impact in the rest of the East finals, averaging 15.3 points on 34% shooting in the other three games, two of which Milwaukee lost.
If that doesn’t change, it’s hard to see the Bucks beating the Hawks — assuming that Antetokounmpo will either be sidelined or significantly less than 100% for the rest of the series.
Middleton has played at a superstar level a few times this postseason, putting up 35 or more points in three games, recording double-doubles on each occasion. However, the two-time All-Star had an MVP-caliber running mate in those three wins, all 30-point, 10-rebound performances by Antetokounmpo.
The Bucks never envisioned Middleton as their No. 1 offensive option, not even when he signed his $177.5 million deal. But that’s what they need him to be now.
— Tim MacMahon
Bogi stepping up
Thirteen days ago, Hawks forward Bogdan Bogdanovic began feeling pain in his right knee. The fourth-year sharpshooter, prior to the injury, had been a key cog in the Hawks’ explosive offense, averaging 16.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3 assists in more than 37 minutes per game.
In the subsequent five games? Just 6.2 points while shooting 25.5% from the floor and an abysmal 5-of-26 from deep.
On Tuesday night, it was the Bogdanovic of old. In the first three games against the Bucks, the 6-foot-6 guard had a combined 20 points. He matched that total Tuesday night, adding five assists, four steals, three rebounds while hitting six 3-pointers.
Atlanta improved to 3-0 in the playoffs when Bogdanovic scores at least 20 points — and they were 13-7 in such games during the regular season.
If Young is able to return to the lineup in Game 5 and Bogdanovic can continue to play at the level he was prior to injuring his knee, Atlanta’s postseason dreams take on a rosier outlook.
— Andrew Lopez
Atlanta just might have more X-factors
If there is one thing to glean from these attrition-driven playoffs, it’s that having a deep roster might be the ultimate X-factor. As star players go down, games are being turned over to role players and complementary pieces.
For the Hawks, they got a boost in the series with the return of second-year wing Cam Reddish, who in just his second game since Feb. 21 played pestering defense on Khris Middleton and added 12 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals in 23 efficient minutes.
Bogdan Bogdanovic is returning to health, adding a considerable offensive boost with his shooting. Kris Dunn saw time at backup point guard after DNPs in the series, playing spot-minutes behind sudden starter Lou Williams.
The grind of the schedule, combined with the oddities of the season, has left teams searching for options. The Bucks will search for a huge one now with Giannis’ injury, with the offense set to tilt more toward Middleton, but also needing help from other sources.
Every playoff series finds players that step up and get hot. It’s typically for a game, maybe two. Now, with injuries continuing to pile up, the X-factors might be the collective primary options the rest of the way — and Atlanta just might have more of them than Milwaukee.
— Royce Young