They got shimmied on, dunked on off the backboard, and out-coached for large stretches, but the Milwaukee Bucks still only lost Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals by three points.
As the Bucks recover from Trae Young's 48-point explosion, what questions do they need to answer for Game 2?
Is Brook Lopez unplayable?
A driver for Milwaukee's success in the regular season over the past three seasons has been their drop coverage – coach Mike Budenhozer's zig to the league's switching zag. Having their bigs like Brook Lopez stay behind and guard the paint rather than pressure up towards the ball handler on pick-and-rolls has allowed Milwaukee to craft a consistent defense that often lulls teams into bad midrange or 3-point shots.
In the playoffs, Milwaukee’s drop coverage and their insistence to stick to it have spelled their doom. They face better players that can consistently punish their defense and, in the past, their stubbornness has led to their elimination.
In Game 1, the Bucks were again willing to die on their cross. Young was hot from the start, rubbing Jrue Holiday off screens and lofting floaters over the Bucks' drop coverage for easy points in the first quarter. Young continued to weave magic against this lineup, particularly in the middle of the third quarter when the Bucks rested Giannis Antetokounmpo and replaced him with Bobby Portis. Young navigated the Bucks' double-center lineup with Portis and Lopez easily, finding his shots and his open teammates.
The Bucks salvaged this game by relenting and going to their “small” lineup with Giannis and PJ Tucker as their bigs. Giannis is hardly a small-ball center with his size so, combine that with his speed, the Bucks turned into an efficient switching machine on defense.
Not having Lopez on the floor later on affected the Bucks’ rebounding as second shots propelled the Hawks' late-game surge. Atlanta got a John Collins 3-pointer off an offensive rebound that trimmed the Milwaukee lead down to one in the final two minutes then later took the lead thanks to a Clint Capela tip-in in the final minute.
The Bucks now have to figure out how to leverage their strengths. Lopez could still be effective as a low-post presence, rebounding, rim protection, and pick-and-pop shooter, but if Milwaukee insists on keeping him anchored to the paint on defense, the Hawks and Trae Young might easily tear them up again in Game 2. Against the Brooklyn Nets, the Bucks found a balance between their big lineup and switching. Look for them to again tinker and see what works against Atlanta's deeper lineup.
Who to go to in the fourth quarter?
The Bucks were in the driver’s seat for much of the fourth quarter, erasing the Hawks' lead and racing to a 105-98 lead with less than four minutes left. They even got stops later in the game, but only got killed by the Hawks’ second-chance opportunities. The last Bucks' possessions looked like this:
Following a Collins 3-pointer that trimmed the Milwaukee lead down to one, Holiday, who had been answering every Young hot streak with his fiery shooting, called for an isolation from the wing, got blocked on a floater attempt, then missed a lay-up, leaving 1:12 on the clock.
After forcing a shot-clock violation on the other end, the Bucks set up a pick-and-roll for Khris Middleton, who whiffed a long-contested jumper with 43 seconds left.
Following Capela's tip-in that gave the Hawks the lead, the Bucks set up another pick-and-roll play out of the timeout, finding an open Pat Connaughton at the wing. He air-balled the 3-pointer, leaving 23 seconds on the clock.
Needing a 3-pointer to tie the game, the Bucks scrambled into a double-screen play, which Atlanta read easily. They found Giannis under the rim, who made two free throws after getting fouled.
Middleton misses the last-ditch three-point attempt to tie the game.
There's plenty of optimism to be derived from this sequence, solely because the Bucks showed they could consistently stop the Hawks and Young in the clutch.
What they do with those stops has been the question for the Bucks for as long as they've had Giannis and Middleton as their anchors. Giannis was terrific in the fourth quarter, tallying 12 of his 34 points in the period. Still, the two-time MVP has been severely limited in these types of late-game situations. The Bucks need to set him up for him to be effective in murky, half-court battles. He's great when he has a mismatch, but the Hawks did well in constantly having the underrated Clint Capela hound him.
In these situations, the Bucks will go as far as Middleton can take them. He made the biggest bucket in Game 7 against the Nets and he needs to pull a few more rabbits out of his hat this series unless the Bucks suddenly dominate the Hawks in the following games. Holiday, who finished Game 1 with 33 points and 10 assists, could also provide a lift.
Milwaukee is awesome at almost everything, except closing out games. They need to get creative if they want to win against a Hawks team with a sure-fire plan to close out games.
What to do with Trae?
Superstars like Young are inevitably going to dominate games offensively. It's what the Bucks failed to do with the Young on their side of the court that was a true missed opportunity.
Young should be a massive target for the Bucks on offense. They did take advantage of Young's lack of awareness on off-ball defense several times, but they could have done much more to tire him out by hunting his man. The Bucks need to make Young work by either going to whoever he's defending or having his guy screen for the ball-handler.
The Hawks got away with having Young on Connaughton or Bryn Forbes for much of the game. The Bucks should have other sets to take advantage of this. Atlanta also got away with playing Solomon Hill to close the game. Hill is a solid defensive player, but very limited on offense. It's these lineup choices that the Bucks need to take advantage of more.