It would seem without the incredible telescoping presence of Milwaukee’s best, Giannis Antetokounmpo, a grateful Hawks team would take advantage of the light created by his absence and bloom like sunflowers beneath the basket.
But nothing in this postseason has gone as it would seem, so why start now?
No matter that Antetokounmpo spent Thursday as the world’s longest cheerleader, Milwaukee still punished the Hawks down low, winning the who-wants-it-more battle down there and thereby winning pivotal Game 5 of this Eastern Conference Final, 123-112.
Hawks coach Nate McMillan can cite one certain stat like it was his Social Security number, that’s how much it meant to this night.
“They were aggressive, 28 points in the paint in the first quarter,” he said afterward. “No defense on the ball, no defense off the ball, weak side help was not there. They were the more physical, more aggressive team from start to finish tonight.”
For the game, the Bucks held a plus-30 advantage (66-36) in points in the paint. They came out Friday and immediately marked the painted territory as their own and controlled it fiercely. Focusing their aggression on attacking the rim, the Bucks built as much as a 20-point lead in the first quarter and milked that all the way to the end.
Bucks 123, Hawks 112 (box score)
Since knees aren’t made to swing like a saloon door, Antetokounmpo, hurt in Game 4, was forced to miss the fun. Stepping in was 7-footer Brook Lopez, who summoned local memories of Lew Alcindor (he changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after leading the Bucks to their 1971 championship). Lopez had the imitation down right to his own more earthbound version of the skyhook. Friday was Lopez’s 66th career postseason game, and he never before scored like this – 33 points. He added 7 rebounds and 4 blocks.
Rather than exploiting Antetokounmpo’s absence, it was the Hawks who were exploited in a very old-school kind of way. Lopez wasn’t the only Buck who took it at the Hawks, just the one who most stood out in the crowd.
“They played their game. They attacked the paint. If Giannis is in the game, he attacks the paint. Tonight, all of them were attacking the paint,” McMIllan said. “It was Jrue (Holiday, 25 points). It was (Khris) Middleton (26 points). Lopez post-up, seal. They attack the paint. That’s their game. They want to play from the inside out, and if you don’t guard the paint, they will punish you in the paint.”
And don’t forget the man who started in Antetokounmpo’s stead, the wild-eyed Bobby Portis, who put up his own playoff career high of 22 points. He wasn’t doing that with his 3-point shot – he made one – but rather with his will to get to the basket and score.
Thursday it was the Bucks adjusting to a potentially debilitating loss, just as the Hawks had done the game before following Trae Young’s foot injury. They were the ones showing off their grit and versatility this time. “Just a different game plan,” said the Hawks John Collins. “Obviously, (before it’s) trying to defend Giannis. And now it’s more of a team effort to get into the paint on their end. I feel like just a different attack from them.”
The Hawks were able to survive a big disparity in paint points in the first game of this series (70-54), but only because Young went on a scoring spree. No Young this time.
In Game 4, the Hawks actually held a slight edge in that stat (46-44) and came out with a win. They’ll likely need to approach that kind of success when the series returns to Atlanta Saturday, the Hawks needing two wins to advance.
“This is not complicated,” McMillan said. “We guarded last game. We’ve got to guard the ball. We have to be the aggressors. That’s what this game is all about, being able to do that in two of our games to win. That’s what it comes down to.”
As if already revving up his Saturday pregame speech, McMillan went on: “You’ve got to guard. You’ve got to put the ball in the basket. There are no tricks or anything that’s needed. You’ve got to be the aggressors. You’ve got to be the team that executes for 48 minutes and do what they did tonight. We’ve done that before.”
The availability of Antetokounmpo – and Young, for that matter – are the great unknowns. But the Hawks missed one window of opportunity Thursday. They can’t again and keep their fantasy season alive.