Heading into Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, the two biggest story lines revolved around a pair of franchise players who were not healthy enough to compete. Hawks guard Trae Young was hampered by a bone bruise to his foot and Bucks two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo couldn’t go after hyperextending his knee near the end of Game 4.
It’s reductive but also true: How each team would respond without their on-court leader up and ready to go would ultimately decide the game. The Bucks aren’t deep. But in a pivotal Game 5 that they won 123–112, it didn’t matter. Here’s more on how Milwaukee took its penultimate step towards the NBA Finals.
The Bucks' starters played like stars
Once again: The Bucks aren’t a deep team. Also: In the very near-term, they may not have to be.
Jrue Holiday spent most of the night looking like a man among boys. He repeatedly drove to the paint, forced help from whoever was supposed to be guarding Brook Lopez—who finished with a playoff career high 33 points on only 18 shots—before feeding the seven-footer. There were lobs. There were dump offs. There was destruction.
Most of Holiday’s 13 assists (and 25 points) came this way. And in the first half, when he could already smell blood in the water, the Bucks' first-team All-Defense guard decided it was time to start ripping the ball away from poor Hawks who simply wanted to initiate a set. We can’t know if that same Holiday will show up in Game 6 (he played a ferocious 42 minutes and has been up and down throughout the playoffs), but to help his team climb ahead in a series that’s officially up for grabs, he was arguably the most aggressive offensive player on the floor.
I say “arguably” because Bobby Portis is alive and well. Portis’s 22 points (on 20 shots) were a playoff career high. When he wasn’t getting hunted by Lou Williams or Bogdan Bogdanović in pick-and-rolls that did a good enough job putting him on an island, Milwaukee’s sixth man looked like Karl Malone, manhandling smaller defenders in the post, creating countless second chances whenever a teammate missed, drilling wide open jumpers and capitalizing in transition whenever the Bucks forced a turnover.
Khris Middleton’s 26 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists felt superfluous because the Bucks were up double digits for almost the entire game, but it was anything but. All the while knowing he might have to go the distance, Middleton’s humdrum, methodical attack was supplanted by aggressive downhill drives, step-back threes, and early pushes that seemingly came off every Atlanta basket. When he started to cook and draw two to the ball, it created easy looks for anyone who felt like diving to the rim.
Together, this group did just about everything right and together. In addition to scoring 111 points as a starting five (aka one fewer point than the entire Hawks roster), they cut, passed, set picks, boxed out, drove gaps on offense then clogged them on the other end, often behind bigs who were switched out on the perimeter. Speaking of ...
Mike Budenholzer made a big adjustment
In the second round, it didn’t matter how many pull-up jumpers Kevin Durant hit over a dropping Brook Lopez. The Bucks were going to be stubborn and sag their big back into the paint whenever his man set a high ball screen. Sure, sometimes he’d try and pick the ball up a bit higher to offer a late contest, but the fundamental strategy stayed true.
As the playoffs have gone on, the Bucks have switched quite a bit more, especially during their big Game 3 win in this series. But before tonight, that shift didn’t apply to Lopez. Game 5 is where all that changed, as Budenholzer shrewdly surprised the Young-less Hawks by repeatedly allowing Lopez to scamper one-on-one 25 feet from the rim against guards and wings.
The adjustment worked like a charm. By the time Atlanta’s offense was able to find any consistent traction against a defense that was dialed in to reduce ball movement and induce hero ball, it was too late. The Bucks leapt to an early lead by grinding their defensive possessions to a halt—keeping the ball in front of them and staying out of rotation—and then pouncing in the open floor, whether the Hawks made their shot or weren’t even able to get one up.
When Young sits, the Hawks have only been able to generate 100.4 points per 100 possessions. Their offensive rating in Game 5 was a somewhat-deceiving 117.9, spurred on by a late rally in a game that constantly teetered in a “maybe we can steal this thing!” zone. Obviously they never did, because their defense failed them.
Atlanta’s defense was bad
The Bucks grabbed a whopping 41.2% of their misses. It’s a mark they breached once during the regular season (in January against the Hawks, because of course) and once against the Heat in Round 1. The second-chance opportunities Atlanta allowed in this game might be the single most significant reason Nate McMillan's crew lost. Not only did Milwaukee annihilate the glass, but when it came time to capitalize they averaged 32.5 points per 100 misses—a soul-crushing number. The Hawks were undisciplined in transition and over-helped a bit, too.
Some of that’s just effort. But there were also some lineups in this game that had never played a second of meaningful basketball together before it tipped off. Kris Dunn is trying his best but is a beat too slow right now. Cam Reddish is quick enough to recover when he bites on a fake, but he’s also prone to on- and off-ball breakdowns. The Hawks might have more useful talent in their rotation, but not enough of it showed up on the defensive end to ever make this game appear as competitive as it could’ve been.
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