Midway through the first quarter, the Atlanta Hawks had the Milwaukee Bucks where they wanted them.
The Bucks only had eight points and zero from Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose two quick fouls did not help his case. With Milwaukee out of sorts, the Hawks were able to quickly build a 15-point lead on a Trae Young 3-pointer with 5:14 left in the first quarter.
It seemed as if things were working out for the Hawks, especially since they were playing in Atlanta, but Young’s right ankle injury with 29.3 seconds left in the third quarter had major implications for Game 3 and at potentially the rest of the series.
That it happened to the lynchpin of Atlanta’s offense was a painful sight for Hawks fans, but the nature in which it occurred (he got injured after he accidentally stepped on a referee’s foot) makes it even worse.
When Young went down with the injury, the Hawks were clinging to an 85-83 lead. A few minutes later, Khris Middleton gave the Bucks their first lead of the game, 86-85, and while Young returned and tried to keep things close, Middleton atoned for his offensive struggles earlier in the series with arguably his signature performance in this year’s playoffs.
Young’s injury certainly wasn’t the sole reason for the Hawks’ 113-102 loss to the Bucks, but it was clear that he was out of sorts when he returned in the fourth quarter. He still finished with a team-high 35 points, which further emphasized his value to the team and how it can impact the Hawks’ morale and performance for the rest of the series.
In the grander scheme of things, foul trouble doomed the Hawks more than the Bucks. Young’s running mate John Collins may have had 13 points and eight rebounds, but he missed all his free throw attempts and ran into foul trouble, preventing him from making an even more meaningful impact on the game.
Kevin Huerter and Bogdan Bogdanovic continued to struggle in this series, as they combined for only seven made field goals out of 27 shot attempts. In contrast, Middleton had 15 on his own, more than doubling their combined made attempts.
Finding consistent offense outside of Young proved to be a pivotal problem for the Hawks as apart from the foul-saddled Collins, it was only Danilo Gallinari who produced especially in Young’s absence. His 18 points were the second-highest on the team, but he could not completely offset the lost production with both Collins and Young were lost to foul trouble and injury, respectively.
On a team level, the Hawks failed to contain the inside attack that Middleton created thanks to his shot making. Antetokoumpo and big men Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis combined for 58 points and six offensive rebounds.
With Collins out, the interior defense of the Hawks changed dramatically. Collins, Clint Capela, and rookie Onyeka Okongwu combined for 11 fouls. However, containing Antetokounmpo could also include sending him to the free throw line, as his 6-of-13 stat line puts him in Ben Simmons territory (but just from the free throw line).
The loss of DeAndre Hunter was even more painful in this series as Atlanta’s perimeter defense has been okay at best, and with Middleton having the best game of this series, it may be something to monitor moving forward. Jrue Holiday was 2-for-11 in Game 3, but his 12 assists meant that the passing lanes and the ensuing offensive opportunities for both him and his teammates remained open.
Young plays a lion’s share of the point guard minutes and finding a replacement from the bench may be a little too much of an ask especially this far into the postseason. Lou Williams can soak up all the backup minutes but he has yet to produce anything meaningful in this series. Kris Dunn is the only other point guard on the roster, but he has only played in games this postseason, so it remains to be seen as to what he can offer in crucial minutes.
The Atlanta Hawks now enter Game 4 with more questions than answers. Young’s injury will certainly take all the headlines, but the attention will likely focus on two things: finding depth in the potential absence of Young and containing the burgeoning perimeter game of the Milwaukee Bucks that is due for another strong game.