Hawks-Bucks: A strange series heads to Game 6

070121 Milwaukee: Atlanta Hawks guards Kevin Huerter (left) and Trae Young, who did not play, watch from the bench in the final minute of a 123-112 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in game 5 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on Thursday, July 1, 2021, in Milwaukee.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
Caption
070121 Milwaukee: Atlanta Hawks guards Kevin Huerter (left) and Trae Young, who did not play, watch from the bench in the final minute of a 123-112 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in game 5 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on Thursday, July 1, 2021, in Milwaukee. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

In a careening Game 5 of a wild Round 2 in 2015, Paul Pierce hit from the corner to put the Wizards up by a point with 8.3 seconds remaining. Pierce, as was his wont, offered on-the-spot commentary, turning to the Hawks’ bench and saying, “Series.” (This nugget was unearthed by Chris Vivlamore, then the Hawks’ AJC beat writer. He’s now our sports editor.) Trouble was, the Truth’s word – Pierce was known as the Truth – didn’t hold true for even 8.3 seconds.

Al Horford shoveled home a Dennis Schroder miss. The Hawks took a 3-2 series lead. They advanced to the Eastern Conference finals after another insane finish in Game 6: Pierce’s tying trey was revealed to have come after the horn. There they ran into LeBron, about which we say no more.

A different band of Hawks are embroiled in another Eastern Conference final. Five games have been played, and all that has been made clear is that nobody knows anything. The Hawks stole Game 1 in Milwaukee, which tilted the series their way for all of 48 hours. They were routed in Game 2. They squandered a lead in Game 3 and lost Trae Young, their best player, to a bruised right foot.

In the immediate aftermath of Game 3, the most likely outcome seemed to be Bucks in five. In the immediate aftermath of Game 4, it appeared possible that the Hawks, who had beaten Milwaukee without Young and seen the Bucks lose Giannis Antetokounmpo to a hyperextended knee, would win in six. Nope and nope.

Given that Young twice was listed as “questionable” but sat out games 4 and 5 – to be fair, he did get up, rather often, to cheer for his teammates – he looks fairly close to playing again. He took part in pregame warmups before Game 5. So, we should expect him to give it a try in Game 6, right?

Said Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan, speaking after Thursday’s Game 5: “He felt a little better but not good enough to play. He’ll still be a game-time decision on Saturday.”

With Young, the Hawks should be better than the Bucks without Antetokounmpo. Without Young, they still should be better. In Game, 5 Brook Lopez was allowed to turn into Nikola Jokic, sort of, scoring 33 points. Clint Capela, the Hawks’ center, scored six. To be fair, Capela also was listed as “questionable” after getting elbowed in the eye in Game 4, but he played. Said McMillan: “We talk about injuries with our guys all the time. If they are out there, they’re ready to go.”

The weirdest part of games 4 and 5 was that they began the same way. The Trae-less Hawks hurtled to a 10-2 lead in Game 4. The Giannis-less Bucks led 10-2 in Game 5. The winner in both games never trailed. Yes, both winning teams were playing at home, but we’ve seen visitors win twice in this series. (Hawks in Game 1, Bucks in Game 3.) That stuff about postseason games being won by The Team That Wants It More usually is a gross simplification. These guys are pros. They both want it the same. Still, desperation can be a determinant.

Trae or no Trae, the Hawks had to win Game 4 to keep from facing elimination in Milwaukee come Game 5. Giannis or no Giannis, the Bucks had to win Game 5 to keep from facing elimination at State Farm Arena on Saturday. Two missions accomplished. Said McMillan afterward: “They were the more physical team tonight, the more aggressive team. … We’ve got to guard the ball. We’ve got to be the aggressors. That’s what it comes down to. There’s no tricks needed.”

Then, looking toward Game 6: “I expect us to respond. It’s do-or-die.”

This will mark the second time in these playoffs the Hawks have faced elimination. In Game 7 of Round 2, they outfought the favored 76ers in Philadelphia on a night when Young missed 18 of 23 shots. If Young can play in Game 6, the Hawks can and should still win this series, seeing as how nobody expects Antetokounmpo to return for even Game 7.

As intriguing as this series has been, it hasn’t been especially close. The Hawks won Game 1 by three points. The average margin of the past four games is 15.6 points. The Bucks have scored 19 more baskets, taken 29 more rebounds and made 22 more assists. Still, there’s a part of you that wonders how. With Bobby Portis forced to start in Antetokounmpo’s absence, Milwaukee’s reserves were outscored 32-12 in Game 5. The Hawks are deeper and no less skilled.

Yes, they’ve put themselves in a position where they can’t lose again. Even with all the twists and turns of these past 10 days, the belief remains they won’t. Yes, this is me calling “series,” even though the Hawks are trailing. Yes, I’m nuts.

About the Author

ajc.com