The Milwaukee Bucks are one game away from the NBA Finals. On Thursday, they hosted the Atlanta Hawks in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals with both sides missing key contributors. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Trae Young, DeAndre Hunter and Donte DiVincenzo all remain out, but the Bucks did a better job of replacing their superstar's production. After jumping ahead by as many as 20 points in the first half, the Bucks pulled out the victory, 123-112, to take a 3-2 lead in the series.
Four players stood out. Brook Lopez led the way with a playoff career-high 33 points, but three of his teammates were hot on his trail. Khris Middleton scored 26 points of his own to go along with 25 from Jrue Holiday and 22 from Bobby Portis. Combined, they scored all but 17 of Milwaukee's points for the game. It was a valiant effort from a hobbled Bogdan Bogdanovic to score 28 for the Hawks, but his teammates couldn't give him enough support to steal this one.
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The Bucks and Hawks will now travel to Atlanta for Game 6 on Saturday. If the Hawks win, Game 7 in Milwaukee will be on Monday. If the Bucks win? They'll meet the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals. For now, here are the three biggest takeaways from Game 5.
1. Brook's time machine
Before Brook Lopez was a stretch big man, he was a traditional low-post threat. He averaged over 20 points per game four times as a member of the Nets, and he got there primarily by punishing opposing bigs near the basket. As the NBA has grown smaller, his combination of size and skill has only grown deadlier inside. He just hasn't played for a team that has allowed him to use those skills. As good as Lopez is near the basket, Giannis Antetokounmpo is simply better. So he spaces the floor for his MVP teammate and uses the bulk of his energy on defense.
Antetokounmpo's absence changed the entire geometry of the floor for the Bucks. Replacing him with Bobby Portis gave the Bucks the spacing that Lopez typically provided, so he could operate more inside. That didn't mean traditional post-ups, though, at least not for the most part. Most of Lopez's easiest points came in pick-and-roll. Five of his six dunks came through some variation of that play.
The Bucks did a remarkable job of putting Lopez in position to score easy baskets in Game 5. They made smart hit-ahead passes to get him quick mismatches in the post. They ran small-small pick-and-rolls to bait big men away from him. Even when they left him in the dunker's spot, the Hawks didn't respect his gravity enough inside to stay with him. The result was 33 points, his playoff career-high, and something of a throwback to his younger self. NBA offenses have changed quite a bit since his heyday, but with a few modern touches, the Bucks were able to make Lopez look like an All-Star again.
2. The stars are aligning
Speaking of All-Stars, the Bucks have two more of them that have been overshadowed by Antetokounmpo. Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday have both had big games this postseason, but have struggled on balance. Holiday's shooting percentage has gone down over eight percentage points while Middleton's has gone down almost five. That's to be expected to an extent. Playoff defense is better. But their streakiness has been the real problem this postseason. Both will get hot for brief stretches, and those stretches never overlap.
Game 5 was the first time all postseason in which Holiday and Middleton both scored 25 or more points in a single game. It happened four times in the regular season… and three of those games came with Giannis either sitting out altogether or getting hurt in the game itself.
That in no way, shape or form means that the Bucks are better without their MVP. But Middleton and Holiday both benefitted from the extra space on the floor tonight, and they both benefitted from the extra touches his absence provided. They had an easier time getting into a rhythm as ball-handlers as most of the offense was funneled through them. Ideally, they'll be able to carry this momentum with them if Antetokounmpo returns. Giannis is still the focal point of the offense, but getting Holiday and Middleton engaged early should be a priority.
3. Is Bogdanovic back?
It got lost in the wave of other injuries the Hawks suffered this postseason, but Bogdan Bogdonvic's knee soreness quietly had an enormous impact on Atlanta's offense. It effectively deprived the Hawks of their secondary ball-handler, putting an enormous amount of pressure on Trae Young to carry the offense. He did so wonderfully in the bulk of those games, but when he went down in Game 3, the fact that the Hawks didn't have a healthy Bogdanovic played a big part in killing their offense. He had six straight games with single-digit points between Game 5 of the Philly series and Game 3 of the Milwaukee series.
He showed some signs of life in Game 4 with 20 points, but 18 of them came from behind the line. It was the same general story in Game 5. He scored 28 points, but 21 of them came from behind the arc. Still, that's a better ratio than he had in Game 5, and the eye test told the same story. He wasn't exactly attacking the basket with reckless abandon, but with each passing game he's shown more and more mobility. He can at least maneuver around most of the court at this stage.
If Young is going to miss any more time, the Hawks desperately need that much at least out of Bogdanovic, because otherwise, Lou Williams becomes their only reliable ball-handler. He had six turnovers in Game 5, not exactly traditional point guard material. He's not his old self yet, but if the Hawks get 28 points out of him in Game 6, they won't care where those points come from.