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Eastern Conference Finals preview: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Atlanta Hawks

June 23, 2021, 10:00 AM ● Jon Carlos Rodriguez, Miguel Flores

The Milwaukee Bucks took a grueling path to the Eastern Conference Finals, while the Atlanta Hawks pulled off a pair of upsets to get to this stage.

You must be living in either Georgia or Wisconsin if you truly believed that the Eastern Conference Finals would have the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks.

The Hawks have been punching above their weight class. First, they took down the spirit of New York City when they ended the Knicks' run. Then, they added to the long list of torturous sports moments for Philadelphia fans after outlasting the 76ers in seven games.

Milwaukee, for their road, had to take on their Ghost of Bubble's Past in the Miami Heat. After conquering all their past traumas, they had reckoned with themselves against the Brooklyn Nets. Thanks to timely shots and shoes one size too large, the Bucks prevailed in seven.

Now, we get a truly exciting time for the Eastern Conference. The Hawks have never made the finals if you don't count their time in St. Louis in the ‘50s. The last time the Bucks made the finals was in 1974, a time when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still their best player and the NBA was still 10 years away from adding a 3-point line.

Most compelling storyline

The Bucks are four wins away from the finals and it’s unfamiliar territory. You’d think that a team with the two-time MVP and all-time freak in Giannis would be a regular in this stage of the playoffs, but no. In his eight-year career, Giannis has only been in the Eastern Conference finals once. 

That wasn’t a good experience. His team won two in a row versus the eventual champions Toronto Raptors but lost the next four games. The following year, Giannis and the Bucks were immersed in Heat Culture and suffered third-degree burns.

Things are different this year. This year is the Bucks’ year. They finished third in the East and dodged another disastrous playoff run by sweeping the Heat and surviving the Nets. With the top team in the East sent home by the Hawks, the stage is set. This series is the Bucks’ to lose. 

Which is exactly what we said about the New York Knicks and the Philadelphia 76ers. 

The Hawks are this playoffs’ grand heist disguised as an amazing story. If the Bucks aren’t careful, Trae and crew will snatch their dreams away the same way they did Julius Randle’s and Joel Embiid’s.

Give Atlanta a chance and they will continue to punch up and up and up, and the next thing you know, this bunch of overachievers are in the finals. On the flip side, this is the perfect set-up for the underachieving Bucks to finally live up to expectations. 

Keep an eye on...

This series will be decided by Trae Young -- not just in how effective he is on offense, but the Hawks' ability to hide Young on defense.

Young, for all the clutch scoring he did against Philadelphia, shot just 39.6 percent and coughed up 3.6 turnovers against Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle. He shouldn't expect his life to get any easier against Jrue Holiday and maybe even Khris Middleton for certain stretches.



On defense, the Hawks will try to find a safe space for Young to not have to exert effort. Atlanta survived against Philly by hiding Young against one of their spot-up shooters or their shot-averse, defense-first players.

The Bucks lineup doesn't have as soft an underbelly -- either with their ultra big lineup with Brook Lopez at center or their "small ball" lineup with PJ Tucker as the nominal five. The Hawks' best option is likely to stick Young on Tucker. Even then, Tucker can punish this gambit by posting up or trying to get on the offensive boards. This also doesn't answer any pick-and-roll situation in which Middleton, Holiday, and Antetokounmpo can constantly call for a screen from whoever Young is guarding.

Hopefully, Young got enough push-ups against Philly. He's going to need all the strength he can get to keep up with the massive Bucks lineup this series.

X-factors

So the spotlight is on Trae Young. If he has a mediocre shooting game, expect him to overcompensate with his elite playmaking game. If he has a bad shooting game, expect him to hit the biggest shot of the game. That’s just the world we’re living in now, the Trae normal. The sooner we accept this as fact, the easier it would be for everyone settling into their roles. 

With that settled, the X-factor in this series for the Hawks not named Trae Young is the person who unexpectedly hurt the Sixers the most: Kevin Huerter.

In the deciding game, Huerter went full-on super bad versus Philly, dropping 27 points on 10-of-18 shooting. If his skyrocketing confidence continues its ascension in the Eastern Conference finals, then Milwaukee will have to deal with another Kevin, who’s also in the crazy business of getting buckets. Don’t be fooled by his Hollywood looks, he’s liable to go Michael. Take your pick: Tyson, Jackson, Jordan, Cera, Game 7.

On the Milwaukee side, their x-factor is more of a practical solution than a disruptor like Huerter. It has to be Brook Lopez, who will likely be on the floor to match up against Clint Capela. In Game 7 versus the Nets, Brook came up with what turned out to be the biggest block of the series when he swatted a KD layup with a minute left in overtime.

He needs to bring the same type of energy when he protects the rim against Trae’s floaters and Capela’s lobs. On offense, Brook should do what he does best: stretch the floor and drag Capela—the Hawks’ prime rim protector—to the deep end.

Winning blueprint

The Bucks should find solace in that the worst is behind them. They survived Kevin Durant. From now on, Milwaukee is the closest thing to a superteam left in the playoffs with their collection of two All-Stars and a former two-time MVP.

Against the Hawks, call the Bucks Google because they have an answer for everything Atlanta asks. Whether they go small or big, fast or slow, the Bucks can do anything the Hawks do better. In this series, they also have the best player in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

If you followed the playoffs solely through Twitter, you might have been tricked into believing Giannis played like Ben Simmons. Though they have similar skill sets, Giannis didn't melt under the pressure. He still averaged 31.9 points on 52.7 percent shooting with 12.9 rebounds against a Nets defense specifically designed to stop him. Aside from Clint Capela, the Hawks don't have much to guard Giannis one-on-one. It's all up to coach Mike Budenhozer to push the right buttons to put away the Hawks.

Having said all that, the Hawks have been underdogs for much of these playoffs and have still prevailed. Atlanta's offense is potent with low-key contributors like Danillo Gallanari, John Collins, and Huerter supplementing Young's talent. If Bogdan Bogdanovic comes back to form, that's four legit outside scoring threats to keep Milwaukee's defense busy.

There's plenty of ways to punish the Bucks' entrenched system, especially their preferred drop coverage on pick-and-rolls. The Hawks have enough personnel to keep hunting the weakest Bucks defenders and force coach Bud to make tough lineup decisions.

This year's Hawks have shined by never giving up and constantly pounding at their opponent's weakness. In close games, the Hawks low-key have the advantage with several players capable of creating shots while Milwaukee has to rely on Middleton or Holiday to facilitate. The Bucks are at their best when they stampede through opponents. Catch these deer under the headlights and the Hawks should shine.