The Atlanta Hawks stole home-court advantage from the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, but on Friday, the Bucks issued an emphatic response. They throttled the Hawks, 125-91, in a game that was decided before halftime. The series is now tied 1-1 as we head to Atlanta.
Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks with 25 points, but all three Bucks stars shot well from the field as Jrue Holiday contributed 22 points to go along with Khris Middleton's 15. Pitifully, no Hawk managed to top Middleton's 15-point total as Trae Young led the Hawks with exactly that many. John Collins was the only Hawks starter to shoot above 50 percent, and the entire team went cold from behind the arc.
The series will now shift to State Farm Arena in Atlanta for the next two games, with Game 3 coming on Sunday. Milwaukee has reclaimed the momentum of the series, but remember, Atlanta lost Game 2 in Philadelphia after winning Game 1 in the second round. Look what happened. The Hawks won that series, and they won't let the Bucks take this one without a fight. For now, here are the three biggest takeaways from Game 3.
1. Make or miss league
It would be an oversimplification to say that the Bucks lost Game 1 of this series exclusively due to their poor shooting, but when one of the best shooting teams in the NBA goes 8-of-36 from behind the arc in a three-point loss, there's rarely a simpler explanation than bad luck. The Bucks have experienced that in every Game 1 they've played this postseason. They shot 5-of-31 on 3-pointers in Game 1 against Miami and 6-of-30 in Game 1 against Brooklyn.
In Game 2, the Bucks nearly matched their Game 1 total in the first quarter by making seven 3-pointers. They finished with 15, but had the game been competitive in the second half, they likely would've risen into the 20s. The Bucks aren't going to win every game by 34 points, but the incredible thing about this blowout is that they didn't shoot particularly well overall. They made 36.6 percent of their 3-pointers, below their 38.9 percent mark in the regular season, and they still blew the Hawks out.
That's what should terrify Milwaukee's possible opponents in the Finals. Their series against Brooklyn was far closer than it should have been because the Bucks shot only 30.1 percent on their 3-pointers. Yes, Brooklyn's defense made a difference there, but the Bucks hit only 28.7 percent of their wide-open 3s against the Nets. That's just bad luck, and it's starting to turn. The version of the Bucks we saw on Friday is far closer to the team they were all season, one that used their excellent shooting to open driving lanes for Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks are almost impossible to beat when they're scoring at both the rim and behind the arc, and the Hawks saw that firsthand tonight.
2. The war of attrition
Atlanta's second-round win over Philadelphia was all the more impressive because of who the Hawks didn't have. DeAndre Hunter is out for the postseason with a knee injury. Cam Reddish only just made his postseason debut on Friday. Bogdan Bogdanovic hurt his knee in Game 6 of the Philadelphia series and hasn't been the same since. Just getting to this point has been a slog, and on Friday, the Hawks might have hit the point of no return.
Trae Young scored 48 points in Game 1, and the Bucks responded with a defensive game-plan geared around stopping him. They ignored opposing shooters and had their screen defenders proactively attack Young in space rather than waiting for him at the basket. The bet was that Atlanta's remaining role players just weren't good enough to punish them for it.
That bet paid off. Young led the Hawks with 15 points. None of his teammates topped 12, and they shot 25 percent from behind the arc. Bogdanovic is so hobbled that he has attempted only 12 shots across two games in this matchup after averaging 12.8 per game in the regular season. The Bucks are not only the better team here, they're the healthier one. With only Donte DiVincenzo out, they are clearly the second-healthiest team left in the field behind the fully intact Phoenix Suns. It's sad that at this stage in the playoffs, health might be the deciding factor, but that's what this condensed season has done to the field.
3. Finding an identity
Mike Budenholzer has tried very, very hard to find a place in his rotation for Jeff Teague this postseason. Across four games against Miami and Brooklyn, Teague played roughly 31 minutes… and the Bucks were outscored by 26 points in that time. Still, Budenholzer gave Teague a six-minute stretch in Game 1, and while the Bucks didn't lose those minutes, Teague's ineffectiveness is among the reasons they didn't dominate those minutes, either. The Bucks lost Game 1 by three points. It's a testament to how close the playoffs tend to be. Every lineup decision counts at this stage. Put the wrong player in at the wrong time and that could cost you a championship.
But in the later stages of the Brooklyn series, Budenholzer went the other way. He essentially devolved down into a six-player rotation, using Pat Connaughton as his only reliable reserve. Bobby Portis was removed from the rotation entirely and Bryn Forbes hardly played. This works in do-or-die games, but it's not sustainable across an entire postseason.
It finally seems as though Budenholzer has settled on an eight-man rotation. He used Portis, Forbes and Connaughton as his reserves in the competitive portion of the game, and while each bring weaknesses to the table (specifically on defense), he bit the bullet and played them for their energy and offensive value. Milwaukee won the minutes all three of them played substantially. Eventually, things are going to get so tight that the Bucks can only rely on six players again, but for now, getting these key minutes out of a few reserves is essential to keeping their best players fresh.