The Milwaukee Bucks came into this NBA season with aspirations of a deep postseason run and realistic hopes of winning the championship.
Led by two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo, two-time All Star Khris Middleton, and key offseason acquisition Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee’s run to this year’s Eastern Conference Finals was the bare minimum that was expected of this roster.
The Bucks underachieved in the last two seasons. Last year, they lost 4-1 to the Miami Heat in the conference semis. The year before that, they blew a 2-0 lead against the eventual champion Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals during head coach Mike Budenholzer’s first campaign with the team.
A third straight Eastern Conference Semifinal loss, this time at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets, would have spelled disaster for Milwaukee and a likely end to Budenholzer’s tenure with the team. With the Bucks’ future on the line, Antetokounmpo took matters into his own hands in Game 7, eliminating the Nets with 40 points, 13 rebounds, and five assists while breathing new life into their season.
With the Nets out of the way and just four teams remaining, the Bucks suddenly found themselves favored, not just for a finals berth, but to win this year’s NBA championship.
Meanwhile, the over-achieving Atlanta Hawks, their counterparts in the Eastern Conference Finals, were not even above .500 as recently as the second week of March. They made it past the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in the previous round, but the focus of the series’ narrative was more on the dysfunction of the Sixers rather than the rise of this feisty Atlanta team.
The Bucks were expected to end the Hawks’ Cinderella playoff run with ease, but that was not the case in Game 1 where Atlanta stole a 116-113 win at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee.
Holiday, who is widely regarded as one of the best defenders in the league, who famously shut down the Portland Trail Blazers’ high scoring guard Damian Lillard in the 2018 playoffs, was carved up by Atlanta’s Trae Young. The latest chapter in the magnificent postseason debut of Young featured a 48-point masterpiece on 50% shooting while he also handed out 11 assists and collected seven rebounds.
Neither Holiday nor any of the Bucks’ lengthy defenders were able to slow down the 22-year-old Young in his maiden Eastern Conference Finals appearance. Young diligently read and adapted to Milwaukee’s pick-and-roll coverage which enabled the Hawks to stay close despite big games from Antetokounmpo and Holiday, who both made 14 of their 25 field goal attempts.
Antetokounmpo built off his strong closing run in the Brooklyn match-up and had 34 points, 12 rebounds, and nine assists while Holiday tallied 33 points, four rebounds, and 10 assists.
Young’s ability to simultaneously score and create opportunities for his teammates at an elite level caught the Bucks flat-footed in Game 1. When Young was not taking long three pointers or high-arching floaters, he was finding his teammates for open looks. John Collins had his best game of the postseason, coming out with 23 points and 15 rebounds plus a clutch corner three pointer with less than two minutes left that pulled the Hawks within one while Kevin Huerter and Clint Capela scored 13 and 12, respectively.
Budenholzer has gained notoriety for his reluctance to adjust, but he will have to find a way to contain Young or else risk becoming the latest victim of these upstart Hawks. The Bucks sorely miss injured starting shooting guard Donte DiVincenzo who would have given Budenholzer another able defender to throw at Young.
Despite Young’s outburst, the Bucks were actually in a prime position to win the game. Milwaukee held a seven-point lead with just over four minutes to go in the game before their inability to rebound the basketball did them in.
Budenholzer closed the game with back-up guard Pat Connaughton instead of starting center Brook Lopez and the Hawks capitalized on their lack of size. Nine of their next 14 points came off offensive rebounds which led them to a one-point lead with 30 seconds remaining in the game.
Young continuously hunted the lumbering Lopez over the first three quarters and playing Connaughton gave the Bucks a better chance of containing him, but the unintended consequence was the mismatch in the paint. The rebounding of Capela, who grabbed five of his game-high 19 rebounds in the final four minutes, haunted the Bucks on both ends of the floor and will have to be addressed come Game 2.
Milwaukee will also need Khris Middleton, who is averaging 23.3 points per game in the postseason, to bounce back from his dismal Game 1 showing. Middleton scored 15 points but made just six of his 23 field goal attempts while he missed all of his nine three pointers.
The Eastern Conference Finals are far from over and the Bucks need not panic in the face of this 1-0 deficit. They still have a much deeper roster than the Hawks and already proved their grit when they stormed back from a 2-0 hole in the prior round. The Bucks may still be favored to take this series, but Game 1 has served as a warning that the Hawks will not make their road to the NBA Finals an easy one.