On Dec. 27, 2019, I placed a hefty wager on the Milwaukee Bucks in a seemingly innocuous game against the then 6-25 Atlanta Hawks only to discover, to my horror, that Giannis Antetokounmpo was ruled out with an injury soon after the bet was made. Dejected at the prospect of a wager lost before tip, I didn't even bother to watch the game. Only later, when I went into my mobile account to check the lines for the next day's games, did I discover to my shock that the Bucks had won by 26 points. Khris Middleton scored 23. Brook Lopez poured in 19 more. The game was never even close.
I can't be the only bettor to have experienced something like this. The Bucks went 6-3 without Antetokounmpo that season in games with actual implications in the standings. Since Mike Budenholzer took over as head coach, the Bucks are 16-11 in such games. That Hawks game, in a vacuum, means nothing. Their current roster is very different and Trae Young is going to miss Game 5 with a bone bruise.
But Milwaukee's success without Giannis? That's sustainable. Lopez can scale up offensively, particularly in the post, with Antetokounmpo out. Milwaukee can still put plenty of shooting and defense on the floor. The Bucks probably can't beat the Western Conference champion without Giannis. But winning two home games without him against a team that is just as depleted? That's doable. Even if Young returns for Game 6 and Antetokounmpo misses the rest of the series, I'm still sticking with the Bucks as my Eastern Conference champions. Now, onto today's top picks.
All lines via William Hill Sportsbook
Milwaukee Bucks vs. Atlanta Hawks
There's going to be a temptation to say "the Bucks got killed after Giannis went down in Game 4. Why should Game 5 be any different?" Well, look at the Hawks. They struggled mightily once Trae Young went down in Game 3… and were winning Game 4 even before Giannis went down. Players are human. Losing their leader is emotional. The Bucks were shellshocked when they lost their MVP. The Nets were when Kyrie Irving went down in the second round as well… and then they won Game 5 of that series without him. Two days is enough time for a team to calm down and refocus the game plan. The pick: Bucks -2
It's easy to forget now that he's become such a good shooter, but Lopez was once one of the NBA's premier post scorers. He averaged over 20 points per game four times and made an All-Star team in 2013. He averaged 15.6 points in a five-game stretch that Antetokounmpo missed in April, and the Bucks should look to him for easy offense in Game 5. The pick: Lopez over 13.5 points
I suspect, in an effort to juice their offense without Antetokounmpo, the Bucks are going to play Bryn Forbes more in Game 5. He's not going to start possessions on the ball, so that likely means he'd get plenty of minutes defending Kevin Huerter before switch-hunts and other actions designated to punish him kick in. Huerter slaughtered Seth Curry in Game 7 of the Philly series. He should find similar success if he gets enough time against Forbes. The pick: Huerter over 13.5 points