The 2021 Eastern Conference Finals is a tale of two teams, yet the prevailing sentiment is how both will bring a breath of fresh air in terms championship aspirations: both the Atlanta Hawks and the Milwaukee Bucks last won their respective NBA titles before the ABA/NBA merger back in 1976.
Both teams are also connected by one man: Mike Budenholzer. The two-time NBA Coach of the Year (one each with Atlanta and Milwaukee) led both the Bucks and the Hawks to their last trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, both of which ended in losses.
When it comes to their basketball acumen, however, both teams take relatively different approaches.
Atlanta’s offense remains as predictable as ever in terms of who it runs through, and yet, both the defensively elite New York Knicks and the East’s top seed Philadelphia 76ers could not solve the riddle that is Trae Young.
The 2020 All-Star embraced the villain role in Round 1 against the Knicks, while he was the giant killer when he led the Hawks over the 76ers. Through 12 games, the Texas native has averaged 29.1 points, 10.4 assists, and 1.3 steals on a bevy of drives, shots, and nifty passes that have flummoxed top-flight defenses and silenced raucous crowds.
The approach will likely be the same for Young and Co., but they may need to protect their franchise player against Milwaukee.
The former Oklahoma Sooner will be the target of the Bucks offense, especially when he switches onto taller and more athletic players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. The loss of De’Andre Hunter, who is out for the rest of the postseason with a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee, will hurt more in this series as he can support Young on defense and prevent the need to switch.
What also worked for the Hawks was how particular players stepped up in certain games, and they’ll likely take what the defense gives them moving forward. Young can run pick-and-rolls with Kevin Huerter, John Collins, and Clint Capela to create different looks that will force the Milwaukee defense to adjust and in turn expose openings for shooters and even cutters.
Meanwhile, the Bucks’ multi-pronged approach has made them a tough cover, but consistency issues have plagued their marquee players.
Antetokounmpo is currently averaging career-highs in points (28.8) and rebounds (13.6), but his atrocious free throw shooting (.538) in the playoffs has grabbed most of the headlines and jeers from opposing teams and crowds.
Atlanta took the Hack-a-Ben approach with the 76ers’ Ben Simmons, whose .342 free throw percentage is the worst in the 2021 NBA Playoffs. It won’t be surprising if they do the same with the two-time MVP.
Overall offensive consistency has plagued both Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday throughout the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Brooklyn Nets and it’s something they will have to snap out of if they are to make quick work of the Hawks.
Middleton has been more clutch in this postseason but improved offensive production will take the pressure off Antetokounmpo, who especially thrives with potent perimeter support that will make him ease off the 3-point attempts.
Meanwhile, Holiday’s performances against the Heat and in the matchups against the Nets have been night and day. After slicing through the Miami defense in the early round of the playoffs, the former UCLA Bruin only shot better than .400 in two of the seven games against Brooklyn.
The key to getting out of the slump could be in attacking Young and perhaps even Capela on defense. Both were used to taking on less offensively gifted players or hobbled stars like Joel Embiid, but the Bucks can throw athletic and shifty wings to draw fouls and be physical with them.
Milwaukee won the regular season series over Atlanta, 2-1, but the circumstances between now and then are much different. Among other things, the rotations of both teams have tightened and the more deliberate pace of play in the postseason brings out a different element out of both team’s offenses.
It is also important to note that at this point in the playoffs, both teams have not gone unscathed as key rotation players are out for the remainder of the postseason. The Hawks will be missing the services of Hunter, while the Bucks have lost Donte DiVincenzo to a torn ligament in his left ankle in the first round against the Miami Heat.
Bogdan Bogdanovic is nursing a sore right knee, which was also the same knee he fractured back in January. Of course, this doesn’t include the minor nicks and bruises that have been undisclosed by both teams, but these could all naturally build up.
Both the Atlanta Hawks and the Milwaukee Bucks have some commonalities that included needing seven games to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. With a shot at the NBA Finals on the line, who’s to say that they can’t go another seven games?