Game 2 wasn’t so much about these Hawks, who have proved as deft at losing Game 2s as they’ve been at winning Game 1s. (They’re 0-3 in the former, 3-0 in the latter.) This Game 2 took the measure of the Milwaukee Bucks, who might not be the most talented assemblage the Hawks have seen in these playoffs but who surely, to use a word employed by Mike Budenholzer late Friday, the most “solid.”
Over the regular season, the Knicks were much better on defense than on offense, ranking fourth in defensive efficiency, 23rd in offensive. The 76ers were similar – second on defense, 12th on offense. The Bucks were fourth on offense, eighth on defense. In sum, they were good at both, which is a signature of a Bud team. His 60-win Hawks of 2014-15: sixth on offense, sixth on defense.
In Round 1, the Knicks were exposed as a team that had a hard time scoring. The New Yorkers mustered 94, 96 and 89 points in Games 3, 4 and 5, all won by the Hawks. The Knicks could get away with starting Elfrid Payton, Reggie Bullock and Nerlens Noel in the regular season because Tom Thibodeau’s defense was so good, but every postseason opponent will guard you back. (By Game 3, Payton had gone from starting to not playing.) The Hawks made it tough on Julius Randle, limited RJ Barrett to 3.5 points per game fewer than in the regular season and reduced Thibodeau’s offense to Derrick Rose working on ravaged legs.
In Round 2, the Hawks left the Sixers grasping at straws. If not for subs Shake Milton in Game 2 and Tyrese Maxey in Game 6, that series wouldn’t have gone the distance. Joel Embiid averaged 30.4 points; Seth Curry averaged 21.0 and Tobias Harris 19.4. After that, Philadelphia had no idea where it might find its next basket. Ben Simmons, who earned $30.5 million this season, averaged 9.9 points against the Hawks. He failed to break double figures in games 5, 6 and 7. He missed 30 of 45 free throws, meaning he couldn’t be trusted at the end of games.
Seven Hawks averaged 9.4 points or better versus the Knicks. Six averaged in double figures versus the Sixers. Neither opponent could slow Trae Young, let alone stop him, and Young always had the option of throwing it to somebody else who could score. In two series against higher seeds, the Hawks appeared the more gifted side, which tells us everything about general manager Travis Schlenk’s eye for talent.
The Bucks will be tougher. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a wonder. Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton are effective complements. Brook Lopez can shoot the 3-pointer and offer interior heft. Bobby Portis has been excellent against the Hawks, though Budenholzer chose not to use him in games 5, 6 and 7 against the Nets. Plus there’s Bud himself, who doesn’t miss much. He was on the cutting edge of the NBA’s move to pace-and-space, and he demanded that his Hawks defend with the same vigor that they paced/spaced. Oh, and he’s the best in the business at calling plays out of timeouts.
(He also has – this is not a misprint – eight assistant coaches. With Nate McMillan’s promotion to interim head coach, the poor Hawks are making do with four.)
Forget Friday’s Game 2, which the Hawks lost by 34 points after trailing by 41. The Bucks themselves lost Game 2 against Brooklyn by 41 after trailing by 49; they then won four of the next five games. The NBA has a history of such red herrings. The Lakers lost Game 1 of the Finals in Boston Garden on Memorial Day 1985 by 34; five games later, they were champs.
The belief remains that these Hawks will win the series, but the Bucks are less prone to buckling than the Knicks and Sixers. It’s possible to beat a Bud team – LeBron’s Cavaliers went 8-0 against his Hawks in consecutive playoffs – but Bud’s men aren’t apt to beat themselves.
Almost the first words uttered by McMillian after Game 2 were: “You’re playing for a trip to the Finals. They showed us there’s another level that we have to play at in order to advance.”
Then: “They picked up their pressure. They played with a sense of urgency.”
In Game 2, the Bucks challenged Young. They didn’t stand around and watch him hoist unencumbered floaters. They made him shoot over Antetokounmpo or Lopez, which introduced a degree of difficulty. They engaged him sooner, which contributed to his nine turnovers. The Knicks and Sixers were so afraid of fouling him – or of him coaxing a foul – that they let him go wherever he pleased. The Bucks did the same in Game 1 and saw him score 48 points.
It could be that Young is too smart to be stopped by any defense for long, but Bud’s Bucks showed in Game 2 what a spirited pass rush shows every given Sunday in the NFL: No quarterback is quite the same under pressure. We’ll see in Game 3 and beyond if that pressure can be sustained. If not, Hawks win.