Michael Cunningham: We’ve seen Hawks bounce back, but they need ‘another level’ vs. Bucks

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

The Hawks came into the playoff as the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference. They’ve proven they are much better than that. They dominated the Knicks and came back against Philadelphia each time it seemed they were finished. The Hawks have earned the benefit of the doubt.

ExploreStifled by turnovers and missed shots, Trae Young struggles in Game 2

But the Hawks can’t say they’ve been here before. For the first time this postseason, the Hawks looked inept. They got down and stayed down Friday night in Milwaukee. That’s also unprecedented. The Hawks surrendered by the end of the third quarter of Milwaukee’s 125-91 victory.

The Bucks were sharper, faster and so much better than the Hawks. Trae Young, the rising Hawks star, was bad. In Game 1, Young had a historic, 48-point performance and the Hawks finished strong. In Game 2, the Bucks hounded Young and put the Hawks on the wrong side of records.

The best-of-seven East final is tied 1-1 with Game 3 at State Farm Arena on Sunday. The Hawks spilt the first two games in each of the first two rounds before winning the series. They still can advance to the NBA finals by winning three games at home. Again, even after a loss like this, they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt.

That only goes so far, though. The Hawks have met every test in the playoffs, but the Bucks let them know this will be a new one.

“Any time you can go .500 on the road, that’s a good thing, especially in the playoffs,” Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan said. “But there is another level that we have to get to where we are right now. You are playing for a trip to the (NBA) finals.”

The Hawks can try to draw on their experience from the Sixers series. Philadelphia won big in Game 3 to take a 2-1 lead. The Sixers looked to be the superior team taking control of the series. The Hawks won the next two games and, ultimately, the series.

But this wasn’t a regular loss for the Hawks. The 34-point margin is the largest in the playoffs since for the Hawks since they lost by 43 at Orlando in 2010. And the Bucks aren’t the Sixers.

Philadelphia had a point guard who wouldn’t shoot. The Bucks have Jrue Holiday, who is always looking to score. He had 33 points in Game 1. Holiday scored 22 points in Game 2 before taking a seat for the fourth quarter.

Sixers center Joel Embiid is great, but Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo is unique. His length, skills and athleticism make him nearly a sure thing to score when he gets to the basket. Antetokounmpo scored a total of 50 points in the paint in the first two games of the series. Only Shaquille O’Neal has matched that in the last 25 years of the playoffs, per ESPN Stats and Info.

Antetokounmpo had 25 points, nine rebounds and six assists in 29 minutes on Friday. He had 34 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists in Game 1. Antetokounmpo has made 9 of 12 free throws. The Greek Freak has no real weakness when he’s making them.

The Hawks didn’t get much from their star. Young was fantastic in Game 1 while thwarting Milwaukee’s adjustment . In the rematch, Holiday swarmed him with relentless ball pressure and Milwaukee’s big men where better when helping.

Young was 6 of 16 shooting, had nine turnovers against three assists and earned just two free throws.

“I take complete responsibility for what happened tonight,” Young said. “I’ve got to take care of the ball better than I did tonight. And I will be better.”

Young started Game 2 as if he would have his way scoring again. He made three of his first five shots and two free throws. He was getting to his spots. The Bucks were 7 of 12 on 3′s in the first quarter and had 10 second-chance points. But their lead was just 34-28 because Young and Danilo Gallinari (nine points) were answering.

Then the Bucks turned up their defensive pressure and Young wilted. He chucked deep 3-point tries instead of navigating the defense and got careless with the ball. The Bucks made him pay for every mistake during a 20-0 blitz that put away the Hawks in the second quarter.

The Bucks turned one of Young’s long misses into a breakaway layup for Holiday. They feasted on three straight Young passes and turned into baskets. Middleton intercepted Young’s pass and ran out for a score. Holiday’s steal led to Brook Lopez’s 3-pointer. And Lopez stole Young’s pass and sent it down the line for a basket by Holiday.

The Bucks would score nine more points in a row. Young wasn’t the only Hawk who couldn’t do much right. Cam Reddish missed a dunk. Kevin Huerter threw a pass away. Clint Capela missed from eight feet. Young missed another step back 3.

The Hawks wouldn’t score again until they were down 71-40. The Bucks led 77-45 at halftime. It only got worse for the Hawks after halftime. Their first possession after the break ended with Young dribbling aimlessly as the shot clock expired. The Hawks were 40 points behind at the end of the third quarter.

“I expected them (the Bucks) to respond with this type of intensity, and they did,” McMillan said. “We were caught on our heels.”

The Hawks will try to get back on their toes at State Farm Arena. They won their last 11 regular-season games at home. But Bucks were the last team to beat them there before the playoffs. And while the Hawks are rightly praised for winning three games at Philadelphia, the series went seven games because they lost twice at home, once when they could have clinched.

The Hawks can’t only depend on a boost from going home.

“We’ve got to find a way to dig deep and keep on fighting,” Young said. “Tonight wasn’t our night. Sometimes it’s like that.”

It hadn’t been like that for the Hawks in these playoffs. They’ve earned enough benefit of the doubt to believe they’ll be better come Sunday. But there’s no denying how badly they were overmatched on Friday.