Hawks shouldn’t fear the deer if they draw Bucks in NBA playoffs

Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer reacts to a call during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer reacts to a call during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Credit: Morry Gash

Credit: Morry Gash

The Hawks led by one point when Russell Westbrook, Washington’s electrifying and confounding star, tried a 3-pointer that could determine the home team’s playoff path. Westbrook missed, so the Hawks avoided a bad home loss Monday to a team missing its best player (Bradley Beal). They still have a decent chance of securing home-court advantage for a first-round NBA playoff series next week, and were on the verge of clinching at least sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

ExploreHawks on verge of clinching Top 6 playoff spot

Finishing lower means relegation to the play-in tournament. The Hawks will avoid that fate should the Heat beat the Celtics on Tuesday night. But that also would mean the Heat pull even with the Hawks for fifth place in the East with three games left apiece (the Hawks have a tiebreaker advantage). A sixth-place finish in the East means a first-round date with the Bucks or Nets.

I would not like the Hawks’ chances against the Nets. I don’t like any team’s chances against the Nets. Good luck slowing James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in a seven-game series. But I’m convinced the Hawks could give the Bucks trouble now that all their rotation players are healthy.

That’s a lot different than saying the Hawks should want a first-round series against the Bucks. They obviously would have much better odds of beating the Knicks, who stand fourth in the East. That wouldn’t be easy. Knicks power forward Julius Randle is a tough matchup because he can bully defenders inside, shoot from outside and pass. The Knicks are a great defensive team.

Those things matter less than one thing: The Bucks have a superstar player, and the Knicks don’t. Randle is having a career year. Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, league MVP for two years running, is a franchise player. Antetokounmpo is the main reason why the Bucks would be heavy favorites against the Hawks.

And yet we’ve seen Antetokounmpo’s Bucks flame out as favorites for two consecutive years in the postseason. The Raptors (2019) and Heat (2020) both used a similar strategy to slow the “Greek Freak.” Build a “wall” with multiple defenders so there’s little room for Antetokounmpo to drive to the basket. The Raps and Heat prevailed by doing that and making shots. The Hawks could do the same.

I’ve watched a lot of Bucks games this season, including their loss at the Spurs on Monday. I haven’t seen much evidence that Antetokounmpo and ex-Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer are closer to an answer for the wall. Opponents still pack the lane and bait Antetokounmpo into taking jumpers. He still seems determined to prove he can make them even as his accuracy shows no signs of improvement.

Antetokounmpo lets Bucks opponents off the hook when he does it. His athletic ability and impossibly long strides and arms mean one defender can’t hope to keep him away from the rim. Deploying extra bodies and making Antetokounmpo pass is risky because he’s good at it, and the Bucks have a lot of shooters. That’s still a better option than allowing Antetokounmpo a chance to swoop through the lane and drop the ball in the basket.

The knock on Budenholzer is that he hasn’t adjusted when playoff foes take away his preferred plan. Maybe that changes this year. Meanwhile, the Bucks will continue to see the “wall” for Antetokounmpo until they prove they can beat it. The Hawks have the personnel to pull it off, especially with De’Andre Hunter recently off the injured list.

The Hawks have some leeway to allow points because they are tough to stop. The Bucks aren’t as strong on defense in Year 3 with Budenholzer. Some of that probably is related to Budenholzer, like all NBA coaches, having little practice time to build cohesiveness during the COVID-19 season. Mostly it seems Milwaukee’s defense has slipped because Budenholzer’s philosophy of protecting the paint at all costs hasn’t been as effective as usual.

Milwaukee’s defensive profile is typical for a Budenholzer team. Opponents don’t take or make many shots around the basket and see few put-back chances. They get plenty of looks from 3-point and midrange. The difference this season is that Bucks opponents are making those jumpers at a higher rate. Milwaukee ranks 29th in 3-point accuracy allowed and 27th in opponent percentage on mid-range shots, according to Cleaning the Glass (garbage time excluded).

The Hawks could exploit that should they see Milwaukee in the playoffs. After Monday’s games, five Hawks ranked among the top 125 qualified players in 3-point percentage. That’s not including Tony Snell, who’s made 56.5% of his 108 attempts. The Hawks also have several players who can create and make midrange shots.

That shooting is what would give the Hawks a puncher’s chance against the Bucks in a seven-game series. The old saying about the NBA being a “make or miss league” essentially means that winning or losing often comes down to accuracy on open shots. Budenholzer knows all about it.

He was left feeling empty in 2015 after his 60-win Hawks team created a lot of open jumpers against the Cavaliers in the East final, but shot only 23.4% on 3-pointers compared with 39.8% for Cleveland. In 2019 the Raptors shot 37.4% on 3s to Milwaukee’s 31 percent. Milwaukee went bust against the Heat in the bubble last year with 32.7% shooting on 3-pointers vs. Miami’s 37.3%.

There’s a template for the Hawks to beat the Bucks. Make the 3-pointers that surely would be available, build a wall for Antetokounmpo in the halfcourt and prevent Milwaukee from running much. It’s easy to envision the underdog Hawks playing loose and free, which is when they are at their best.

The Bucks are under pressure to contend for an NBA championship. The Athletic reported last week that Budenholzer needs a “deep playoff run” to save his job. He left the rebuilding Hawks in 2018 to coach a contender. Imagine the noise around the Bucks if they were to have problems putting away the Hawks in the first round.

The knock on Budenholzer has been a failure to adjust in the playoffs when his initial plan isn’t working. I didn’t fault him for that in 2015 with the Hawks. What could he do about good shooters missing open shots? The next year LeBron James swept the Hawks again on his way to another NBA championship. In 2017 the Hawks lost to a team with two players better than any of theirs, John Wall and Bradley Beal.

Budenholzer didn’t have that excuse in either of his past two postseasons. He had the league MVP both times. The Bucks won 60 games in 2018-19 and 56 of 73 games in 2019-20. They were heavy favorites to win the East both years. They didn’t come close.

The Bucks won’t be the top seed this year. Maybe that means Milwaukee will have more left for the playoffs. The Hawks wouldn’t have to find out until later in the postseason if they finish fifth or better in the East. Should the Hawks slip to sixth and face Milwaukee in the first round, I see no reason why they should fear the deer.

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