Michael Cunningham: Hawks ‘punched’ by Bucks, must get up again to save season

Hawks' Onyeka Okungwu is knocked to the hardwood with a hard foul.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Hawks' Onyeka Okungwu is knocked to the hardwood with a hard foul. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Judging by official injury designations and pregame activities, Hawks star Trae Young appears to have a better chance of playing again in the Eastern Conference finals than Milwaukee counterpart Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Young was questionable for Game 5 Thursday in Milwaukee and didn’t play after testing his bruised right foot before tipoff. Antetokounmpo was doubtful with a hyperextended left knee, then was ruled out hours before the game. It will shift the power in this series if one of them returns and the other doesn’t.

Otherwise, we’ve reached a kind of equilibrium.

The Hawks lost Game 3 after Young went down, then stunned the Bucks in Game 4 without him. Milwaukee faded in Game 4 after Antetokounmpo suffered his injury, then didn’t need him to overwhelm the Hawks 123-115 in Game 5.

“They came out and they punched us hard early, and we just never recovered,” Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan said.

The teams split games without their star players. Now the Hawks return home for the latest in a never-ending series of tests for their postseason mettle.

The Hawks are down 3-2 in the best-of-seven series. To keep their season alive, they’ll have to win Game 5 Saturday at State Farm Arena. To advance to the NBA Finals, they’ll have to do that and win again in Milwaukee Monday. And the Hawks may have to do it all without Young.

At some point, the Hawks may be stretched beyond even their considerable limits. Until then, they’ll keep pushing them.

“We have a lot of confidence,” Hawks forward Danilo Gallinari said. “That’s something we’ve had since the beginning of the season. We’ve been here before. We are in the Eastern Conference Finals. We have a lot of basketball to play. Obviously, we have to get the next one, and we will.”

There are reasons to believe it.

If Young doesn’t play in Game 6, the Hawks have the formula for winning without him. State Farm Arena is sure to be electric again. Milwaukee isn’t likely to be ambushed this time, so it figures to be harder for the Hawks . But nothing’s been easy for the Hawks since they dismissed the Knicks in the first round, and they are still here.

The Hawks rallied from big deficits twice to win games against the Sixers in the semifinals, then eliminated them in Game 7 at Philadelphia. The Hawks won Game 1 against the Bucks, took a beating in Game 2, then lost Game 3 at home with Young limping to the locker room. The Hawks tied the series with a tremendous effort without him.

If Young plays in Game 6, chances are he’ll be limited. He tried some cutting moves at slow speed on the court before Game 5. Young winced while doing so, and soon was ruled out. McMillan said Young will be a game-time decision for Saturday.

Hawks guard Trae Young tests out the bone bruise in his right ankle two hours before tip off against the Milwaukee Bucks.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Lou Williams was good in Game 4 and started in Young’s place again. The Hawks had the same plan: share the ball, play fast and swarm the Bucks with all-out defensive effort. But the Bucks were ready for it this time.

Milwaukee was faster, sharper and energized by its home crowd. The Bucks rattled the Hawks with their defensive intensity.

“They were the more physical, aggressive team from the start,” McMillan said.

The Bucks staggered the Hawks early for the second time in three games at Milwaukee. They did it in Game 2 with Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holliday scoring, passing and rebounding. Milwaukee did it in Game 3 with the foursome of Holiday, Brook Lopez, Bobby Portis and Khris Middleton.

Lopez had 33 points, seven rebounds, four blocks and two steals. Portis had 22 points, eight rebounds and three steals. Middleton had 26 points and 13 rebounds. Holliday finished with 25 points, 13 assists and just two turnovers in 42 minutes.

Said Hawks guard Bogdan Bogdanovic: “They have other guys around Giannis. They knew they had to step up. Now it’s our turn.”

The Bucks ran out to a 22-7 lead while scoring on 11 of 13 possessions. Holliday was all over the place. He backed down Bogdanovic for an easy layup and pushed past Kevin Huerter to score at the basket. Holiday made a spot-up 3-pointer from the wing and dropped a pass to Lopez for a fast-break dunk.

McMillan went to his bench early in a search for someone to match Milwaukee’s intensity. Hawks reserves were better, but the Bucks still led 36-22 after one quarter. The Hawks had to work hard to create shots and didn’t make many. The Bucks scored too easily — 28 of their 36 points in the first quarter came in the paint — and had seven offensive rebounds.

“We didn’t match their intensity and energy,” Gallinari said. “They were able to do whatever they wanted.”

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer replaced Antetokounmpo in the lineup with Portis and played him alongside Lopez. Bucks defenders switched on screens with the big lineup. It worked. Lopez and Portis stayed in front of smaller Hawks ballhandlers, and helped the Bucks dominate the paint at both ends.

Antetokounmpo’s length and athleticism make it almost inevitable he’ll score once he gets in the paint and serve as deterrents for driving opponents. The Bucks still dominated around the basket without him. They scored 66 points in the paint to 36 for the Hawks.

Lopez scored 12 points in the first quarter, including three dunks on passes from Holiday. Portis played as a reserve in the first four games and boosted the Bucks with his passion and rebounding. He gave the Bucks the same from the start of Game 5, plus eight first-quarter points.

The Bucks led 30-10 after another Holiday-to-Lopez connection for a dunk. Then the Hawks started making shots. They were 4-for-5 on 3-pointers in the second quarter. John Collins made two and Huerter and Bogdanovic made one each. Milwaukee’s lead was down to 65-56 at halftime.

The Hawks had a few surges after halftime. The Bucks turned back all of them. The Hawks undermined their comeback efforts with little defensive resistance in the paint, sloppy turnovers (Williams had six) and offensive rebounds allowed (six after halftime).

The Hawks are up against it again. They are used to that by now. The Hawks are a relatively young group of players making their first playoff run together, but they’ve been through a lot together already.

The Hawks were down 2-1 to the Sixers and overcame a 26-point deficit to win Game 4. The Hawks won Game 5 in Philly, but lost a chance to clinch at home in Game 6. They won their third road game of the series to advance to the East finals.

Now the Hawks face elimination again on Saturday.

“I expect us to respond,” McMillan said. “It’s do or die now.”

With Young or without him, against Antetokounmpo or not, the Hawks must dig in once again to stay alive.