How Hawks match up with Bucks, plus my series prediction

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) scores past Hawks forward Solomon Hill (18) during the first half Sunday, April 25, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Ben Gray/AP)
Caption
Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) scores past Hawks forward Solomon Hill (18) during the first half Sunday, April 25, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Ben Gray/AP)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

The Hawks are in the Eastern Conference final for only the second time in franchise history. They haven’t been to the NBA Finals since the team moved from St. Louis to Atlanta for the 1968-69 season. The Hawks are heavy underdogs against the Bucks, but their rousing run through the first two rounds of the playoffs has turned “Believe” from a T-shirt slogan into a sensible thing for their supporters to do.

ExploreNext challenge for the Hawks? Limiting Giannis and defending the paint

The Hawks solved the Knicks and their All-Star power forward, Julius Randle, in five games. They got past the 76ers and league MVP candidate Joel Embiid in a physical, seven-game series. Now the Hawks are set to face the Bucks, yet another great defensive team, and two-time MVP winner Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Here’s a look at the series matchups and my prediction for the winner.

Point guards

Hawks: Trae Young

Young has moved up the list of the NBA’s best young stars with a fantastic postseason. His creative playmaking and crafty scoring have shined, and he’s embraced the role of villain in road arenas. Young will have a tougher defensive assignment in this series, and his sore right shoulder has affected his shooting. Over the final four games of the Sixers series, Young was 36-for-102 (35.2%) from the field, including 12-for-38 on 3-pointers.

Bucks: Jrue Holiday

Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons hounded Young. Now Young faces another test from Holiday, who earned his third All-Defensive team selection this season. The Bucks traded for Holiday in November, and he went on to have his most efficient scoring season of his 12-year career. Holiday’s shot was off during semifinal round vs. Brooklyn, but he came through with key baskets late in Game 7. Holiday is a better scorer than any of Philadelphia’s guards.

Wings

Hawks: Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter

The Hawks need Bogdanovic’s sore right knee to get better fast. He was the best 3-point shooter among Hawks regulars during the season but didn’t appear to have his usual lift on jumpers late in the semifinal series. Bogdanovic was 5-of-27 on 3′s over the final four games. He still made positive contributions with shot creation inside the arc and physical defense on the perimeter.

Huerter has been solid all-around during the postseason. Against the Sixers he led Hawks perimeter players in rebounds and scoring efficiency and was second in assists to Young. The Hawks needed more points from Huerter in Game 7 vs. Philadelphia, and he responded with a team-high 27. Huerter’s confidence has grown along with his role.

Bucks: Khris Middleton and P.J. Tucker

Middleton is a great No. 2 scoring option for the Bucks. He scored 35 points against the Nets in Game 3, helping Milwaukee avoid a 3-0 hole. He had 38 points on only 16 shots when Milwaukee faced elimination in Game 6. Middleton is very good at catching and shooting 3-pointers (38.5% accuracy this postseason). Potentially more worrisome for the Hawks is Middleton’s ability to score on pull-up, mid-range jumpers.

The Bucks traded for Tucker in March so he could defend the East’s top scorers. The deal paid off when Tucker did as good a job as could be expected guarding Nets star Kevin Durant. Tucker has attempted only 49 field goals over 11 games this postseason (18 makes), but he could have more chances to score in this series.

Bigs

Hawks: John Collins and Clint Capela

Collins gradually has figured out his best role for the Hawks in his first postseason. He’s cut down on awkward drives to the basket in favor of his effective jump shot from the mid-post and corner 3-pointers. Collins has been very good on defense, too, both helping and on the ball. He’s likely to be the primary defender against Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Capela spent much of his time chasing Embiid around the perimeter in the last series. That limited his most valuable attribute, help defense at the rim, but he still did good work on the glass. Capela sometimes didn’t have strong challenges against Embiid’s jumpers because he was guarding against his drives. He’ll have to stick closer to Brook Lopez but sagging off Antetokounmpo might be a good approach.

Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez

Antetokounmpo’s accolades include two league MVP awards, five All-NBA honors and four All-Defensive nods. He puts tremendous pressure on defenses with his length, athletic ability and skill. Antetokounmpo can score over anyone in the paint, but he tends to settle for jumpers and is a poor free-throw shooter. In Game 7 vs. Brooklyn, Antetokounmpo relentlessly attacked the rim and made 8 of 14 free throws while scoring 40 points on only 24 shots.

Lopez isn’t as skilled as Embiid but, like Embiid, he’s a physical big man who can shoot from the perimeter and defend the rim. Lopez also is good at finding space along the baseline on Antetokounmpo’s drives and scoring off his passes. Lopez isn’t as mobile as Embiid, so he figures to have a harder time challenging Young’s floaters while also cutting off his lobs to Capela.

Key bench players

Hawks: Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, Onyeka Okongwu, Solomon Hill

Gallinari closed the semifinal round with strong all-around performances in three consecutive games. He’s playing solid defense, so expect to see more of him as the small forward in big lineups. Williams still can take over games with scoring bursts. Rookie Okongwu become a key matchup guy against Embiid and could see minutes against Lopez.

Bucks: Pat Connaughton, Bryn Forbes, Bobby Portis

Only two Bucks bench players, Connaughton and Forbes, played more than 60 total minutes in the Nets series. All but nine of Connaughton’s 49 field-goal attempts this postseason have been 3-pointers, and he’s made 35%. Forbes played a major role in the Heat series before his production and minutes dwindled against the Nets.

Coaches

Hawks: Nate McMillan

McMillan has done great work since taking over as interim coach March 1. His most impressive feat is shaping the Hawks into a group that plays defense at a level that’s more than the sum of its parts. McMillan came up with the right formulas to neutralize Knicks big man Julius Randle and (eventually) wear down Embiid. His next task is figuring out the best approach against Antetokounmpo.

Bucks: Mike Budenholzer

Budenholzer, a former Hawks coach and top basketball executive, left after Year 1 of their rebuild to coach Milwaukee. He started this postseason under pressure to make a deep run after the Bucks lost the past two seasons as the East’s No. 1 seed. Budenholzer has always fielded good defensive teams. The Hawks have the personnel to undermine his preferred scheme, so he might have to adjust his approach.

Intangibles

Hawks: “Calm, clear and connected”

That’s McMillan’s core message for the Hawks, and they’ve looked that way in the playoffs. They closed out the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. They overcame big deficits twice against the Sixers and won three times on their floor. The Hawks are never out of it because they don’t panic when circumstances are dire.

Bucks: Over the hump

The Bucks had their grit questioned after the two early playoff exits. They lost four consecutive games to the Raptors in the 2019 East finals after leading 2-0. The Heat were big underdogs in last year’s semifinal but needed only five games to beat the Bucks. This year the Bucks swept the Heat in the first round and survived Durant’s extraordinary effort to lift his inured squad to the East finals.

Prediction

The Hawks were slight betting favorites to win the series against the Knicks. They dispatched them in five games. The Sixers became even bigger favorites to win the semifinal series after they blew a big lead in Game 4. The Hawks won twice more on Philadelphia’s floor. Now Milwaukee has 83% implied odds to win the East final, based on the series betting line.

It’s possible the Hawks are being underestimated again, but I don’t think so. I’d like their chances a lot more if not for Bogdanovic’s sore knee and the injury absences of De’Andre Hunter (knee) and (probably) Cam Reddish (Achilles). The lack of wing depth will hurt the Hawks more than it did against the Sixers.

Even if Bogdanovic rediscovers his shooting touch, the Hawks don’t have enough effective defenders available to send at Antetokounmpo, Holliday and Middleton. The Sixers hurt the Hawks when they didn’t get their defense set. Now here comes Antetokounmpo, who is impossible to keep away from the basket if the defense is scrambling.

Bucks in 6.

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