Next challenge for the Hawks? Limiting Giannis and defending the paint

Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan helps rally his team to a 103-96 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Sunday, June 20, 2021, in Philadelphia. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan helps rally his team to a 103-96 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Sunday, June 20, 2021, in Philadelphia. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

What are the biggest challenges Giannis Antetokounmpo presents for the Hawks, entering the Eastern Conference finals?

“... Giannis. You just said it,” Hawks forward Danilo Gallinari said succinctly.

As MVP in the 2018 and 2019 seasons and defensive player of the year in 2019, as well, Antetokounmpo’s name speaks for itself, with how he can dominate.

ExploreMichael Cunningham's series prediction

The No. 5-seed Hawks sailed past the No. 4-seed Knicks in the first round, winning that series in five games, and edged the No. 1-seed 76ers in Game 7 on Sunday. Despite missing two of their best defenders to injury (De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish, though Reddish was updated to questionable on the Hawks’ injury report Tuesday night) and shooting below their season-average from 3-point range (37.3%) for all games but the first, Trae Young (29.1 points, 10.4 assists in the playoffs) and the Hawks defied the odds to outlast the top team in the East.

Philly center Joel Embiid averaged a double-double of 30.4 points and 12.7 rebounds in that conference semifinals series, but had 16 turnovers over the past two games. The next huge hurdle for the Hawks is finding a way to limit the No. 3-seed Bucks and Antetokounmpo (6-foot-11, 242 pounds). Game 1 will be at 8:30 p.m. ET Wednesday.

It mostly comes down to defending the paint and preventing penetration. It’ll be a team effort, but obviously Hawks center Clint Capela and power forward John Collins will have a lot on their plate.

“We’ve got to protect the paint,” wing Kevin Huerter and Game 7 Hawks hero said. “That’s going to be a big emphasis. Giannis, he gets downhill, he always finds an angle. His Euro step is great. He kind of gets by you, and he’s at the rim. Seems to be a guy that every game, he gets a lot of easy baskets. So we’ve got to protect the paint. He gets everybody else going, and they have a lot of good players around him, so a team that presents that a lot of new challenges, but obviously a challenge that we’re going to be up for.”

The Bucks swept the No. 6-seed Heat in the first round and beat the No. 2-seed Nets in seven games to advance. Through those 11 games, they’re averaging 48 points in the paint, the most among teams still active in the playoffs, and giving up 38.2. Through the Hawks’ 12 playoff games, they’re averaging 41.3 points in the paint, giving up 43.3.

Antetokounmpo has averaged 28.8 points, 13.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game in the playoffs, shooting 61.5% on 2′s.

He’s also not the only player good at attacking the paint, Hawks coach Nate McMillan pointed out, spotlighting Jrue Holiday (15.2 points, 7.5 assists per game in playoffs) and Khris Middleton (23.3 points, shooting 38% from 3-point range, eight rebounds, 4.3 assists). They’ll also have to contend with center Brook Lopez (13 points, 7.2 rebounds) on both ends of the floor.

“They do that, a lot of times, with Giannis penetration,” McMillan said of Milwaukee attacking the paint. “And if you take away the paint, then they will shoot the 3-ball. So it’s going to be really important that we keep the ball in front of us and that we force this team to score over the top and that we’re not allowing points in the paint because if you’re constantly having breakdowns on the perimeter or in the post, then you’re collapsing on the ball.

“With their ability to stretch the floor offensively, you’re pretty much going to play into their hands. So it starts with controlling the ball. Whoever’s on the ball, guarding that. And they’re not just getting it from Giannis. Jrue is doing a great job of attacking, playing in the paint, as well as Middleton. So they have three guys that are really attacking your paint very good and efficient at 1-on-1 coverage, but if you double-team, they have the ability to score from the perimeter as well.”