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Hawks fall short in playoff-like test against Bucks

A matchup between the three and four seeds in the East, one in which the Bucks prevailed against the shorthanded Hawks

Milwaukee Bucks v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks found themselves back home at State Farm Arena for a —nationally televised — Thursday night fixture against the Milwaukee Bucks but were unable to continue their winning ways, falling short 120-109.

Bogdan Bogdanovic led the Hawks with another extremely impressive and efficient performance, scoring 28 points on 10-of-20 shooting from the field, 6-of-12 from three, as well as notching seven assists.

For the Bucks, Jrue Holiday led the Bucks with 23 points as seven Milwaukee players notched double-digit scoring.

Both teams welcomed back their respective stars, with Giannis Antetokounmpo returning after a six-game absence while Trae Young returned to action after missing the last two games. However, the Hawks were still without John Collins, De’Andre Hunter, Danilo Gallinari, Cam Reddish and Kris Dunn.

Despite their injuries, this was a game the Hawks were always going to be tested in, as the Bucks represent a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference, as well as it being the 3-4 matchup in the East. The Hawks initially got off to a good start, but once the Bucks got going, they were the superior team.

The second quarter was key, one which the Bucks outscored the Hawks 31-23 — not a massive differential but the second half was largely even on the scoring front from both teams, making the second quarter a key one.

The first half was largely similar for both teams in terms of stats with the exception of rebounding (where the Bucks out-rebounded the Hawks 26-19) but the key aspects that separated the Bucks in the first half was their three-point shooting, shooting 11-of-23 from three in the first half compared to the Hawks’ 5-of-17.

Let’s look at those threes from the second quarter, where the Bucks found some of their separation.

Giannis didn’t look on top of his game, as you would expect after a decent layoff, but did hit this three-pointer in the second quarter:

Solomon Hill was tasked with guarding Giannis and he did as good of a job as you could ask, and you live with outside shots that the reigning MVP makes.

Something that separates the Bucks from other teams is their ball movement, obviously not a surprise under former Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer. The Bucks were quick and snap with their passing, leading to opportunities such as this one, where Bryn Forbes’ extra pass finds Khris Middleton for three as the Hawks have only four players in-shot here defensively:

Again, Forbes is involved as he drives, stumbling before kicking the ball back to Holiday on the perimeter and his extra pass on the closeout from Kevin Huerter leads to a three-pointer for Brook Lopez:

Bogdanovic was perhaps a little late on his rotation here but this is what the Bucks do: they’re quick and snap and they punish teams accordingly.

This time, the ball-screen from Forbes for Holiday creates an issue for Young and Huerter, and Young can’t recover as Forbes receives the ball and hits the three-pointer:

Entering halftime trailing by 12 points, the Hawks were on the precarious edge where a quick Bucks start to the second half throws this game open, but it was the Hawks with an 8-0 run to begin the third quarter before eventually taking the lead in the third quarter. However, the Bucks made a decisive run towards the end of the third quarter, leaving the Hawks down 12 points to begin the fourth quarter — back where they started.

With the Bucks leading by two points with 3:20 remaining in the third, a nice one-two between Pat Connaughton and Bobby Portis catches the Hawks out, and Connaughton hits the three-pointer:

Coming the other way, Young’s cross-court pass is easily read and intercepted by Portis, who is fouled in transition to prevent the certain layup, sending Portis to the line for two successful free throws:

Now trailing by seven points with under three minutes to go, Young gets a great look at a floater in the paint but shoots it long:

The Hawks get within five after a made basket by Onyeka Okongwu — who played well in his first quarter stint — but the Bucks immediately reply as Portis and Jeff Teague link up on the pick-and-roll, with Portis hitting the runner over Okongwu, who contested well to be fair to him but Portis restores the seven point lead:

The Hawks attempt to reply themselves and Okongwu creates separation for Young, who delivers a nice pass to Nathan Knight in the corner but cannot convert:

The Bucks continue to press their advantage as Teague finds himself on a switch with Okongwu and duly takes the rookie off of the dribble and gets inside the paint where his runner receives the fortuitous bounce off of the glass and rim to increase the Bucks’ lead to nine points with just under two minutes to go in the third, leading to a Hawks timeout:

McMillan inserted Huerter, Hill and Brandon Goodwin for Young, Bogdanovic and Knight out of the timeout, but their struggle to end the third quarter continued as Lou Williams’ shot is blocked by Antetokounmpo and the Bucks push in transition. From there, Connaughton finds P.J. Tucker in the corner for three as the Hawks gets drawn ball-side, pushing the Bucks’ lead to 12 points once again:

This was unfortunate for the Hawks, who had worked hard to erase that 12 point halftime lead to begin with, so to end the third quarter trailing by 12 points once again had to be disheartening.

It didn’t take long for the Bucks to extend this lead to 18 points in the fourth quarter, and while the Hawks made things semi-interesting, cutting the lead to eight points with 2:25 to go, the Bucks secured three offensive rebounds on the following possession as Lopez eventually tucks the ball away for the Bucks, restoring their double-digit lead with 1:39 remaining.

A turnover from Young followed by a three-pointer from Connaughton all but ended the game as the Hawks ultimately fell to an 11 point defeat.

Postgame, Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan keyed in on the effectiveness of the Bucks in punishing the Hawks’ turnovers.

“I really didn’t feel like we established ourselves at any point during this game,” said McMillan. “Defensively they averaged 30 points a quarter. First quarter 33 points, third quarter 30 points we gave up offensively. We didn’t do a good job getting back in transition. We had 11 turnovers and 21 points off of the 11 turnovers. Anytime we made a mistake, turned the ball over, they made us pay. They converted those turnovers into points. They pretty much had control of game the entire game.”

The Bucks were favored ahead of last night’s game and on the second night of a back-to-back having played in Minnesota on Wednesday afternoon. The game unfolded as you might have expected, and ultimately the Bucks’ class was too much for the shorthanded Hawks to deal with as the Hawks lost some ground in their playoff-seeding push, something they are, of course, monitoring.

“We lacked a little enthusiasm for this game today, the energy was a little bit off,” said Hill postgame. “We’ve done a good job of settling into how we want to play. We do want to be a more aggressive team defensively and tonight we ran into a team, they have championship ambitions. Giannis came back today and was able to get downhill and to his thing. This is our first time really understanding the moment, the implications that it has as a team. That’s the 3-4 matchup at the moment, we have Boston, they’re making a run right behind us, We just lacked it. Those guys are in the position they’re in because of how they play the game of basketball, defensively and offensively and they have their way tonight. They were consistent throughout the game and it led to the W.”

While a loss is a loss, the Hawks competed well against one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams despite their absences but a matchup like this also puts a finer scope on the mistakes the Hawks make in a game like this.

“We can learn a lot from this team, definitely,” added Bogdanovic postgame. “They’re a consistent playoff team and they know how to play winning basketball. We made a run in the second half and tried to keep up with them and one turnover, two turnovers, two bad defensive and offensive possessions and you look up at the scoreboard they’re somehow up 10, up 12. They’re tough.”

One of the areas of this game where the Bucks, arguably, won the game outright was the difference in the bench play. The Hawks are obviously missing multiple contributors but the Bucks outscored the Hawks 44-16 from the bench.

“It’s a good team, and we needed to be the aggressors in this team, we needed to be sharp defensively,” said McMillan. “They pose a challenge because of the matchups they can create on the floor, so you need to be connected defensively. Offensively you’ve got to take care of the ball, you’ve got to value every possession when you’re playing games like this. If you’re turning that ball over and they are converting those turnovers into points, it’s just going to put that much pressure on your defense and your offense to score and to win games. You have to value every possession. Their first and second unit, their second unit really just dominated our second unit, 44-16 scoring. We really didn’t have much production from our bench tonight.”

The starters for the Hawks played, for the most part, very well. Solomon Hill hit a season-high six threes on his way to a season-high 18 points, Huerter shot 7-of-11 from the field on his way to 16 points, Capela grabbed another double-double with 16 points and 16 rebounds and obviously Bogdanovic led the scoring with 28 points.

Young scored 15 points but really struggled shooting ball, 3-of-17 from the field and 0-of-3 from behind the arc to go along with six turnovers. Young more than likely wasn’t 100% healthy after missing the last two games, but he got some good looks in the first half but his floaters just wouldn’t fall for him against Milwaukee.

Postgame, McMillan downplayed the notion that Young wasn’t 100% healthy, attributing his struggles more so due to a lack of rhythm having missed the last two games more so than an injury-hangover.

“He’s in uniform, he was on the floor,” said McMillan of Young. “We’re not going to put guys on the floor if they’re not ready to go. He was in uniform, he didn’t have a good shooting night, he had some turnovers tonight and that could be from the lack of rhythm, he hasn’t played in the last couple of games.”

A tough spot for the Hawks to lose the game by 11 points while Young shoots 3-of-17 but others did step up, like Hill and like Bogdanovic continues to do.

With the playoff race as tightly contested as it is and the Bucks, for now, settling comfortably into that third seed, this could end up being a potential matchup for the Hawks in the first round, something that the Hawks are aware of too.

“For sure, that’s even a situation where this could be the playoff potential, this could be a potential matchup in some form or fashion,” said Hill when asked if this game could be used as a measuring stick in the Eastern Conference. “The seeding options and situations are not done yet but another opportunity too to play on (national) TV, to show how hard we’ve worked and a situation to play at home. We need this games, I don’t care who we’re playing, we need these games. I think we’re two games from being eighth. It’s going to be a dogfight all the way through. Teams are hurt, so it’s no excuse. We just have to be better.”

This was a difficult spot on paper for the Hawks, but they competed and had they secured a defensive rebound in the spot where the Bucks snatched three offensive rebounds, it could have certainly been interesting. Alas, the Bucks not only won those three rebounds but the rebounding battle itself convincingly, 52-39, and the bench difference was key too — arguably the deciding factor.

Atlanta’s offense was not bad but as McMillan eluded to, the Bucks averaged 30 points across the four quarters and they could not slow the Bucks down at all, with the exception of one period in the fourth quarter where the Bucks scored two points in a five minute stretch but had the safety net of a 19 point lead (which I’m sure played a part too as the game was, realistically, over at that point).

While Giannis wasn’t 100% — he only scored 15 of the Bucks 120 points — the Bucks, ultimately, showed their overall class and depth.

The Hawks (30-26) are back in action on Sunday against the Indiana Pacers (26-28) in a matinee fixture, in need of a victory against a team in the midst of that Eastern Conference playoff/play-in picture.

Until next time...