Hawks vs. Bucks Game Preview: Three Keys to Hanging With Milwaukee

Ben Ladner

A week after hosting the Bucks in Atlanta, the Hawks will visit Milwaukee Wednesday night seeking to end a seven-game winning streak that has sunk them all the way to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. Atlanta fell short, 135-127, the first time it played the Bucks as Giannis Antetokounmpo cruised to 33 points, 11 rebounds, and four assists. The Hawks started the game auspiciously – breaking an ugly trend of slow first quarters from their previous road trip – and made a mad dash to get back in the game late, but the Bucks were too steady in the middle of the game for it to matter.

For most teams, losing a steady playmaker and shooter like Malcolm Brogdon (whom the Hawks will see on Friday) in the offseason and missing All-Star wing Khris Middleton with a leg injury would strike significant blows, but Milwaukee has hardly missed a beat. The Bucks, at 13-4, own the NBA’s third-best offense and defense, and the top point differential in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass’ metrics. The Bucks have so honed their offensive and defensive schemes that they can plug most any player into them and have success, and Antetokounmpo is the motor that makes it all run. (For a more in-depth look at Antetokounmpo and his offensive prowess, click here.

Here are three keys that could help slow Giannis and his Bucks:

Winning at the rim

Both Atlanta and Milwaukee rely on controlling shots at the rim, which could make the basket the most important battleground for this game. The Hawks take 39.5 percent of their shots at the rim – the fifth-highest mark in the NBA – while Milwaukee allows opponents to take only 29.4 percent of their shots there and holds them to just 53.2 percent shooting – the lowest marks in the league. In their first meeting, 38 percent of Atlanta’s shots came at the basket, but it converted less than half of them.

The Bucks are quite intentional about what kinds of shots they allow, and taking away the rim is, clearly the top priority. They employ a heavy drop coverage that keeps Brook Lopez, a human mountain, stationed near the rim at all times to swallow up layups and deter drives. Antetokounmpo’s ungodly length and quickness allows him to help smother the paint and recover to shooters while the other three Bucks on the floor simply maintain sound positioning along the perimeter.

That could make Trae Young’s floater an even more important weapon for the Hawks. Over a quarter of Young’s shots come from floater range, and he has hit them at 50 percent this season. He is also Atlanta’s best (read: only) offensive catalyst capable of manufacturing shots for others at the rim, and the Bucks will be keyed in on his lobs to Damian Jones in the pick-and-roll. If they don’t have as much success opening up the lane this time around, it will be critical that the Hawks hit the open 3s Milwaukee concedes.

Speaking of which…

Can De’Andre Hunter rediscover his groove?

Hunter exploded for a career-high 27 points the first time he matched up against Milwaukee, which was a major reason why Atlanta managed to stay in the game. This time, however, the Bucks will have Middleton back in the lineup to help blanket the rookie. Hunter had a size or quickness advantage over nearly every defender Milwaukee tried on him, but Middleton doesn’t give up ground so easily. He isn’t a lockdown wing, but Middleton is as important an individual defender as Milwaukee has and will likely draw the matchup with Hunter.

Though the rookie’s opportunities off the dribble and near the basket may be more limited, he should still find relatively clean looks from deep, and his (and his teammates’) success on those shots could be a major bellwether Wednesday night. Unfortunately for the Hawks, they are the worst shooting team in the NBA (by 3-point percentage) and plays multiple non-shooters at nearly all times. They did hit 14 of their 31 3-pointers in the first outing against Milwaukee (perhaps a product of the Bucks’ emphasis on taking away the rim), which could bode well going into Wednesday.

Hunter struggled for the first time in a while against Minnesota on Monday, shooting 3-of-10 from the field for seven points. “He missed shots he made the night before,” Lloyd Pierce said. “That’s the basketball gods keeping him at rookie status. You can’t get too hot.”

That came on the heels of an eight-game double-figure scoring streak, and Hunter has looked more comfortable with each passing game as he figures out how to score and facilitate at the NBA level. His 3-point percentage has risen to nearly 38 percent for the season and he’s becoming an increasingly prominent part of Atlanta’s offense. As he becomes more consistent, he’ll put nights like Saturday behind him. “Those are shots that, if he’s taking those and he’s getting them, I’m alright,” Pierce said.

Rebounding

Mike Budenholzer has historically emphasized the defensive glass and transition defense over offensive rebounding. The Hawks meanwhile, have struggled mightily on the defensive glass this season. Atlanta snares the lowest share of defensive rebounds and fifth-highest percentage of offensive boards in the league; the Bucks, by contrast, are the best defensive rebounding team and fifth-worst offensive rebounding team in the league.

That could give Atlanta room to create extra scoring opportunities with offensive rebounds while boosting their own defensive rebounding. Or, it could give the Bucks room to crash the offensive glass against a weak front line. Though Milwaukee outrebounded the Hawks 46-43 last Wednesday, simply minimizing the disparity helped the Hawks stay in the game, and the Bucks grabbed only eight offensive rebounds. Given how dynamic Young can be in transition, the ability to run off of opponents’ misses is a key element of Atlanta’s offense.

“I think we’re pretty good when we can get out and run,” Pierce said. “We have to get easy opportunities, whether it’s offensive rebounds, getting to the free-throw line, or playing before the defense is set.”

Milwaukee is incredibly difficult to score on when given the chance to set its defense, and the Bucks are dominant even without seeking out second chances. To gift them any extra opportunities is to give them absolute control. 

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