Playing in their second consecutive game without their star guard Trae Young, the Atlanta Hawks came into Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals at the Fiserv Forum looking to build off their 22-point Game 4 blowout.
However, the Milwaukee Bucks, also shorthanded in Game 5 without the services of two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo, snuffed out the Hawks’ momentum immediately.
The Bucks reclaimed control of the series with a 123-112 victory to take a 3-2 lead and moved within a win of their first NBA Finals since 1974.
Atlanta struggled on both ends of the court to begin Game 5 and they fell behind by as much as 20 points in the first quarter. Bogdan Bogdanovic was the only Hawk starter who found a consistent rhythm in the first half and finished the contest with 28 points, five rebounds, and four assists. It was the second straight 20-point outing for Bogdanovic who has taken up the cudgel of Atlanta’s offense in the absence of Young.
Danilo Gallinari had a series-high 19 points off the bench and he, together with fellow reserves Cam Reddish and Onyeka Okongwu, energized Atlanta in the first half after their sloppy start.
To begin the game, the Hawks settled for perimeter shots early in the shot clock and their lack of offensive execution was compounded by their hapless defense. They could not contain Brook Lopez and Jrue Holiday who combined for 23 points in the first quarter and were two of the four Bucks starters, together with Khris Middleton and Bobby Portis, who went on to score at least 22 points in the game.
Portis, who has had a strong series against the Hawks after playing sparingly in the previous round, made his first career playoff start in place of Antetokounmpo. His ability to stretch the floor opened driving lanes and easy opportunities for the Bucks inside.
Atlanta allowed Milwaukee to shoot 50.5% from the field and Clint Capela was thoroughly outplayed by Lopez. The Bucks’ sharpshooting center relived his early career role as an inside scorer and torched Capela for 33 points on 77.8% shooting. The ineffective Capela was benched down the stretch in favor of Gallinari as Collins slid to center and he finished with just six points and eight rebounds.
Lou Williams, starting in place of Young, and John Collins had better showings in the second half, but it was too late for the Hawks who trailed by double digits for most of the third and fourth quarter after beginning the second half facing a nine-point deficit. Kevin Huerter managed to score just eight points though he recorded seven assists for the third consecutive game.
These Hawks do not have the personnel to shut down the Bucks, so they will have to rely on their offensive firepower to steal this series. If Young cannot suit up for Game 6, Bogdanovic, Williams, and Huerter will have to simultaneously show up like in their Game 4 win.
When this perimeter trio is aggressive and locked in, Atlanta’s attack is tough to contain because of their ability to both score and create for their teammates off the dribble. This opens things up for Capela and Collins who are not adept at creating their own shots but are elite finishers when given the ball in the right situation. The involvement of these two big men on offense often leads to more energy from the pair on defense.
The two consecutive strong showings of Reddish, whose return in Game 2 from an extended injury layoff was his first game since February, and the rookie center Okongwu is a promising development for the Hawks in this series and their future as well. Any contributions from these two are a bonus and playing on this stage will only help accelerate their development.
Atlanta is now a loss away from elimination, but have proven throughout this season that they cannot be counted out and are not content with their season despite vastly over-achieving their preseason expectations. This series is far from over for the Hawks, with or without Young, and Game 6 gives them another opportunity to add another chapter to their fairytale season.