Trae Young led the way with a historic performance, scoring 48 points (a new playoff career high) to go along with 11 assists.
Much more on Young later but, elsewhere, John Collins added 23 points and 15 rebounds.
For the Bucks, Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 34 points while Jrue Holiday added 33 points.
Going to fast-forward to the fourth quarter and a point in the quarter where the Bucks had retaken their lead and pushed their lead to 105-98 with a big Holiday three-pointer. Things weren’t looking terrible for the Hawks but the Bucks certainly found momentum at a pivotal time in the game between Holiday and Antetokounmpo.
Again, there’ll be plenty of time for discussion for Young but I thought at this point of the game Collins saved the Hawks in the fourth quarter in this stretch.
On a crucial offensive trip, the Hawks are about to come up empty-handed as Kevin Huerter has to take the three-point shot with Khris Middleton right there to contest at the end of the shotclock. Off of the miss, Collins is right there to tip the ball in on the offensive rebound to give the Hawks a hugely important basket out of nothing, cutting the lead to five points:
What I really liked here from Collins was that he didn’t go from the three-point line, along the baseline, to get to the rim but goes around, using the body of Clint Capela and then skies above Pat Connaughton to grab the offensive rebound.
After a miss from Middleton for three, the Hawks dig further into that Bucks lead as Young is fouled by Holiday and Young hits the floater for the ‘and-1’:
I think many wanted Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer to challenge this call but it sure looks like Holiday makes contact with the chest, and it’s the right call.
Still leading 105-103, the Bucks respond with an Antetokounmpo alley-oop from Holiday, a combination that proved difficult to slow down most of the night:
Jus throw it up and Giannis will throw it down!! pic.twitter.com/LE5ELrIBhf— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) June 24, 2021
Young’s previous make from the field, plus the foul, would be his only make from the field in the fourth quarter, shooting 1-of-7 from the field and 0-of-4 from three. Young settled somewhat from three in the fourth quarter and the Hawks might have to look at what the Bucks changed in the fourth quarter because he wasn’t quite able to get to his floater in the fourth quarter. For now though, he misses this three from the outside:
On the contest for the rebound which goes out of bounds, the officials initially ruled it Bucks ball, but after the officials conferred this was changed to Hawks basketball. While everyone looked over and over again that the ball did indeed come off of Antetokounmpo, Collins makes a cut on the out of bounds play, receives the ball, finishes at the rim and cuts the Bucks lead to two points. Apologies I can’t show it to you but when you have to see a replay 5,000 times, you’ve got to do that...
After Collins leaps a little too early on Pat Connaughton, leading to two free throws, the Hawks would get back to the free throw line themselves as Middleton commits the foul on Young on the drive and floater attempt:
Connaughton was pretty upset at this call and he should be, because it was a monster block but his teammate has committed the foul. Again, people thought this should have been reviewed but replays clearly showed that Middleton caught Young on the left arm...and that’s a foul! I think there was a large contingent of Bucks fans who were unhappy that Budenholzer didn’t challenge any of these calls but if he challenges and loses, they lose the timeout, and certainly in this case the call is not being overturned. Regardless, Young dispatches both free throws.
But the Hawks had issues procuring consistent stops in the fourth quarter and that continued as Holiday finds Antetokounmpo again on the alley-oop from the pick-and-roll:
Next comes what I believe was the most important sequence in the game.
It begins with Young settling again from outside the arc, attempting his 30 footer with just under 12 seconds on the shotclock which is missed. However, Collins is on hand to grab the offensive rebound and kicks it out to Solomon Hill on the perimeter:
What I love most about this is that PJ Tucker, hilariously, isn’t even looking at the ball on the offensive rebound, he’s just looking at Collins and where he is, facing him before bumping him, the contact eventually turning him around to the offensive rebound which is now in Collins’ hands.
Hill proceeds to take a three-pointer himself, which is also missed but also tracked down by Capela in the corner:
Capela gets the ball back out to Young behind the perimeter and Young drives inside before finding Collins in the opposite corner and Collins hits the clutch three-pointer to cut the lead to one point:
Still unsure as to why Antetokounmpo didn’t contest the shot in the end but perhaps he thought it was too late to challenge it. He may have also been fatigued because he and multiple Bucks — including Holiday, Middleton and, for all intents and purposes, PJ Tucker — played the full 12 minutes in the fourth quarter. Either way, a clutch three-pointer from Collins as he and Capela basically saved the Hawks with their offensive rebounding in the fourth, turning that poor shot from Young on the perimeter in the fourth quarter into a big basket.
The Hawks finally come up with a stop down the stretch as Huerter disrupts Holiday on the jumper (not credited with the block, however) before Holiday collects the loose ball and misses at the rim, with Huerter right there to contest:
“I think we knew we had to get stops,” said Huerter of what the Hawks needed to do to win, trailing by seven points. “They were kind of living in our paint all game and we had to try to make them kick it out. We needed to get stops to give us a chance offensively and we did that enough down the stretch. Trae hit some big shots and big free throws, JC had a big three. We needed to protect the paint at the end of the game, and for the most part we did it enough to win.”
Now with the chance to retake the lead, the Hawks come with Young who gets the screen from Capela near mid-court. Young gets inside and is somehow able to bump Antetokounmpo (who I think was terrified of having a foul called on him) out of the play and Young misses his floater inside. However, again, the Hawks come up clutch on the offensive glass as Clint Capela collets the miss and is able to hit his shot high off of glass and in for the go-ahead basket:
Make no mistake, Trae Young took the Hawks to this point — and then took them home — but without the Hawks’ offensive rebounding and scoring from both Collins and Capela, they do not win this game.
The Bucks proceed to take a timeout, now suddenly trailing with just under 30 seconds remaining in Game 1.
Out of the timeout, they get a great look at a three-pointer with Connaughton — a 37% three-point shooter on the regular season — who airballs the three-pointer. The Bucks’ attempts to chase down and secure the ball from the airball are valiant but unsuccessful as Middleton’s save is tipped by Antetokounmpo into the backcourt to Young, who collects the ball and is fouled by Holiday with the shotclock now off:
Young hits both free throws, giving the Hawks a three point lead. The Bucks save their timeout and try desperately to get a look at a three with the clock ticking down. The Hawks do an excellent job defending the perimeter before the Bucks are forced to toss the ball inside to Antetokounmpo who is immediately fouled by Hill:
Fantastic defense from the Hawks to prevent the three and the quick foul by Hill before Antetokounmpo can get a shot up for a potential ‘and-1.’ Antetokounmpo hits both and the Hawks use a timeout themselves to advance the ball. They get the ball in to Young, who goes back to the line and hits both free throws again to give the Hawks a three point lead as the Bucks burn their last timeout.
Out of the timeout, the Bucks get a decent look at a three with Middleton as Young steps off of him, likely fearing a pass to the firing Holiday. Middleton’s shot is contested from behind by Hill but Middleton gets a good look and cannot convert. The Hawks secure the rebound, Young fires the ball high over his head (I will be surprised if he doesn’t get a fine for that) and the Hawks take Game 1, their third straight win on the road in Game 1 and the Bucks’ first loss at home in the postseason.
“I felt we built ourselves to be able to play on the road,” said Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan postgame. “I’ve told them that they’re built for this. Again, tonight, we got off to somewhat of a slow start. I thought we just needed to get our second wind. Looked like we just were running in the mud in that first quarter. We just stayed with it, continued to stay with it. We kind of got a rhythm, found out what they were doing defensively. We were able to take advantage of some matchups. Defensively, we brought the defense to the floor again in the second half and were able to come up with big stops. They really just kept their poise, kept their composure for 48 minutes which is what is required in these playoff games.”
Up against it in the fourth quarter — trailing 105-98 — the Hawks, again, rallied from a deficit in the fourth quarter to retake the lead and win the game: a situation the Hawks have found themselves in often this season, even before the postseason.
“We’ve been in this position many times,” said McMillan. “Seven-point game is really a three-possession game. We felt that we know what we need to do. We need to get stops and we need to execute and score. They did another solid job of executing down the stretch, again, finding that matchup. They went to really one through five switching, and it became somewhat isolation ball. So it was just a matter of us finding the matchup that we wanted on the offensive end of the floor. Defensively I thought Solomon (Hill) came in and really did a nice job defending with that small lineup going down the stretch.”
“...They’ve been able to learn how to execute down the stretch,” added McMillan in a later answer. “Trae continues to show growth in running the team. They continue to improve, all of them, playing together. Again, it’s different guys different nights. It was Kevin (Huerter) the other night, and it was Trae tonight. John (Collins) did a real solid job. Solomon didn’t play much in the last game, stepped in tonight and gave us some really good minutes. They continue to just believe in each other and play the game the right way.”
When the Hawks were faced with a monster deficit in Game 5 of the Philly series, one of the things the Hawks talked about after the game, after the comeback victory was how they took things one possession at a time, and though faced with a far lesser deficit this time around, the Hawks continue to play through it.
“I think our mentality is just to keep playing,” said Capela when asked what allows the Hawks to keep fighting back from deficits. “Whenever we make a mistake on defense we try to not make it again. Not really focus on the score but more about our mistakes that we’re making. How offensively we can execute better, create multiple possessions on offense, offensive rebounding, kick it out, get open threes, get defensive stops, and it really generates us on both ends of the floor.”
‘One possession at a time’ is a classic NBA cliché, as is ‘it’s a game of runs,’ but there’s a reason why these particular cliché’s hang around, and not only do the Hawks understand that it is as simple as that sometimes but they also have the confidence to bounce-back when the opposing team makes that run, as the Bucks did in the fourth quarter.
“Having that confidence and understanding to know that they’re going to make a run,” said Collins of overturning the Bucks’ lead. “They have talented guys, a great coach, and we know they’re at home and they’re going to get energy and find a way to put the ball in the bucket. But it’s a matter of us just trying to withstand and hold the fort and trying to make plays, and I feel like we did that down the end. It was knowing that we’re still in the game regardless of whatever happens.”
The star of Game 1 was none other than Trae Young, who scored 48 points on 17-of-34 shooting from the field and 10-of-12 from the free throw line (including 9-of-10 in the fourth quarter) to go with 11 assists.
If you didn’t want to look at the video, a quick look of Young’s shotchart will let you know how where he did the majority of his damage, Young decimating the Bucks with his floater:
With Brook Lopez looming in front of the rim and sitting back, it allowed Young to get to his floater off of the pick-and-roll time and time again.
“That’s their defense,” said McMillan of the Bucks allowing Young to get to his floater. “Their guards do a good job of sending you to Lopez, who’s deep in the paint. Basically that’s a shot that they want to force you to make. Trae has to make a read in a situation like that, whether he has the shot or he has the kick-out. But that’s their defense. They keep their five in deep drops and force you to try to shoot over their guards and their bigs.”
Lopez only played 12 seconds in the fourth quarter as the Bucks tried to switch things up defensively but Young was still able to get to the free throw line and contribute that way in the fourth quarter, even though he shot just 1-of-7 from the field in the fourth. The Bucks threw a number of different defenders, including known defensive stalwart PJ Tucker in the fourth quarter, who is coming off of a series where he had to guard Kevin Durant: a different type offensive juggernaut compared to Trae Young.
“They have really good defenders,” said McMillan when asked what impressed him most about Young in Game 1. “What I respect about Trae, he’s going to always stay aggressive. He continued to stay aggressive and take his shots and tonight those shots were falling for him. I thought he did a good job of, again, reading the defense and getting the ball and putting the ball in the hands of guys who had their matchups. John had a few matchups, Gallinari had some matchups. Good job reading the defense, getting us organized and then executing against their defense.”
Young has been known to erupt offensively at times but his work last night was very steady: 12 points in the first quarter, 13 in the second quarter, 12 in the third quarter and 11 in the fourth quarter.
Superstars who have been eliminated in the playoffs are seeing what Young has been all this time and Young is continuing to earn the respect he has deserved all this time across the league. Postgame, his coach, McMillan detailed what makes Young such a threat and a top player in this league.
“I think he just has the skill that these top players have in this league,” said McMillan of Young. “You have to put him with the top guys in the league. He really doesn’t have a weakness on the offensive end of the floor. He can shoot from deep, he stretches the floor, he has a mid-range game, he will pass the ball, find his teammates, he shoots free throws well. He’s seen all the defenses that teams have played against him. We’ve talked about this throughout the season. He’s seen a box-and-one, he’s seen bigger defenders, he’s seen physical defenders, he has seen teams trap and try to get the ball out of his hands. This is part of the growth that he has to go through, and the good players, they go through this and they learn from it. But they don’t allow the different coverages to take them out of their game. They still find ways to be productive and Trae has been able to do that.”
“He’s a young player so there’s a lot more room for growth for Trae,” added McMillan. “This is his first time in the playoffs. Working with him during the season, I really felt he was built for this time of the season. He’s a fearless player, he’s a confident player, he’s a kid that every second that he’s on the floor he’s giving it to you, he’s giving everything that he has. I really feel that his game, his style of play is really built for this time of the season.”
It is hard to believe at times what Young is doing in his first playoff run but if you’ve been watching the Hawks and Young throughout his three seasons, this isn’t incredibly different to what he was doing all season. It has just translated beautifully into the postseason and no matter what teams have thrown at him, Young has handled it extremely maturely.
If you’ve watched the Hawks since Young’s rookie season, you would have seen nearly every type of defensive coverage and scheme used to attempt to slow down Young. From switching, secondary defenders and Charlotte’s zone (which is still the one I think that has worked most effectively on Young this season), Young has basically seen it all.
“No, I’m not surprised because I know I’ve seen pretty much every defense,” said Young. “It’s really just figuring out what type of defense they’re showing that night. So I’m not surprised. For me, it’s just trying to make the right read and figure out how they’re going to guard. They guard a certain way and just trying to make plays and attack that way. I’m not really surprised ever.”
To his teammates, none of what Young is doing is a surprise at this stage either.
“I don’t really have — in a great way — not much to say about Trae,” said Collins of Young. “It’s almost normal at this point for me, being with him for so long, to see him get going. The way they were playing him, for him to catch a rhythm — it’s nothing new for me. 48 points is amazing though. Obviously, he brought his lunch pail today and he was ready to go, but I always see him catch a rhythm. It’s fun to see, fun to play with, as well. Our chemistry has always been great since the first day we stepped on the court.”
“He’s a prolific scorer,” added Huerter of Young. “He’s one of the best pick-and-roll players in the league. Like I said, this isn’t something new. It’s something he’s been doing for the past two-plus years, scoring at a really high level, getting guys involved. I think in the Playoffs the ball is usually in the best player on the team’s hands a lot more than it might be in the regular season. You trust them to make a lot of plays. The way the Bucks play defense, we’re running a lot of pick-and-roll right now, and that’s one of his biggest strengths — coming off and scoring, finding guys. So it’s stuff he’s been doing, it’s just everybody is seeing it now.”
What Huerter has said is spot-on: Young has already been doing what he has been doing — now everyone else is seeing it.
I thought Capela’s comments on Young were fascinating, especially through the lens of who Capela has played with in his career.
“I think he’s really fearless,” said Capela of Young. “I’ve been on this stage, this is my second time (in the conference finals). I’ve seen a lot of players just retreat whenever they get on this stage. What I see from him is so much confidence, fearless, attacking again and again. It’s really contagious on our team. He’s been doing it since we started.”
Capela obviously played with James Harden, many a-time named to All-Star teams, All-NBA teams and an MVP. Capela also talked about how highlight plays like Young’s insane alley-oop to Collins off of the glass and his shimmy three energize the bench.
“It gets us hyped. It’s crazy, man. It’s just crazy,” said Capela. “Even that pass against the backboard, like that’s some crazy shit. That’s crazy. I mean, I’ve played with a lot of good players. I’ve never seen that, especially on this stage. It’s crazy to see.”
Coming from someone who has played with someone like James Harden, who has that swagger about him too — who has often shimmied his way into highlight threes — that’s high praise from Capela.
Just an astonishing game from Young, on all levels — even defensively Young had some good moments. With this postseason run, Young is already cementing his place in Hawks greatness and it has been very enjoyable thus far and Young continues to give belief that it may continue further yet.
Trae Young created, assisted, or scored 80 of the 108 points Atlanta scored while he was on the floor during Game 1.— Synergy Basketball (@SynergySST) June 24, 2021
Young played a wonder game but the Hawks also received a huge contribution from Collins, who scored 23 points on 11-of-16 shooting from the field (despite shooting 1-of-5 from three) to go with 15 rebounds.
17 of Collins’ 23 came in the second half, his production in both of those quarters hugely significant. Collins helped swing the game towards Atlanta in the third and when shots were missed in the fourth, Collins cleaned it up and made something out of nothing, not to mention a massive three-pointer in front of the Bucks’ bench.
Postgame, McMillan was pleased with Collins’ defensive shift as well as finding ideal matchups for the Hawks offensively.
“I thought he was great tonight,” said McMillan of Collins. “Tonight we had to do a good job of finding our matchups. They were switching a lot. We were patient and we found our matchups. John had some matchups in the paint and just really did a solid job of scoring when he had the matchups in the paint. Defensively, just really did a good job, again, defending the ball. He had to defend three positions tonight. Middleton, he was on Lopez, he had Giannis and just did a solid job. He’s been consistent. That guy who has helped us really all season long. Just another solid job by John.”
You’ll see the SportsCenter highlights of Collins’ alley-oops from Young but these were not his favorite plays from Game 1.
“For me, it’s just the offensive rebounds,” said Collins of his favorite plays of Game 1. “I like those because those are extra possessions. I just feel like it gets the team going, the energy on our team going. Those are gritty plays and plays that win games. Getting people extra possessions rather than making an open shot or dunking on somebody, which I love to do, as well, but trying to find ways for our team to win makes me happy at the end of the day.”
In the fourth quarter, as we’ve looked at, these mattered enormously. Not just Collins, but Capela too.
Capela has the unenviable job of guarding Joel Embiid last series and he struggled at times. It didn’t get a ton easier at times last night as Capela was the Hawk tasked with guarding Antetokounmpo.
“He had the assignment tonight — he led the Philadelphia series guarding Embiid — and tonight he had Giannis,” said McMillan of Capela. “We believe in him. He’s been the anchor to our defense, both guarding the ball, help defense, rebounding the basketball, setting screens, freeing up the ball. He’s just such a big part of this team and how we try to attack. He’s become a really important part to the success of this team.”
“They were very big, very big in the fourth quarter, big the whole game,” added Young of Capela and Collins. “They made a lot of plays down the stretch. Clint for sure on the defensive end and rebounding. Then JC with his scoring, he had a big three in front of their bench, and he did play really well the whole game. It was a fun game, and those two played really well.”
Capela put in a huge shift, scoring 12 points and grabbing a playoff career-high 19 rebounds as he and Collins combined for 34 rebounds, helping the Hawks win the rebounding battle 51-45, scoring 17 second chance points.
“It’s key,” said McMillan of the rebounding battle. “They are an elite offensive rebounding team, and that is a major key for us, to rebound the basketball. Early, we gave up some offensive rebounds in that first quarter, really the first half. We started to clean it up, and we won the boards. But we’ve got to do a better job of rebounding the basketball because they do a great job. Their guards get in there and they fight for those extra opportunities, the bigs are tapping it out for extra possessions. We’ve got to do a better job on the boards, and we’ve got to do a better job of keeping the ball in front of us, we gave up 70 points in the paint tonight. I think our defense can be better than that, it needs to be better than that.”
The Bucks did a lot of damage in the paint, as McMillan alluded to, and the worry in this series is that if the Bucks did ignite from three-point range in addition to being able to score with ease in the paint, that would be troublesome for Atlanta.
Neither team shot well from three, and that would be the optimism on Atlanta’s side: they shot 8-of-32 from three. The Bucks shot 8-of-36.
Speaking of struggling to shoot the ball, Middleton had a difficult game for the Bucks, his 15 points on 6-of-23 shooting from the field and 0-of-9 from three offsetting the amazing game Holiday produced for the Bucks, scoring 33 points on 14-of-25 shooting from the field and 5-of-9 from three.
Perhaps some of that ignition from Holiday can be attributed to the fact he was guarded at times by the wounded Bogdan Bogdanovic. Bogdanovic dealt with a knee issue in the latter stages of the Sixers series and, despite a few days off, it clearly is still bothering him.
“He is giving us everything,” said McMillan of Bogdanovic. “It’s pretty obvious that there’s some soreness there but, again, this is the way this team has been built. He does not want to sit out. He’s trying to give us whatever minutes he can give us. It really has helped us the last few games being able to have him out there because he’s still a threat. These guys have been doing this all season long.”
Bogdanovic scored just four points on 1-of-6 shooting from the field in 27 minutes (playing just five minutes in the fourth quarter) but even when dealing with an injury, Bogdanovic provides a threat to opposing defenses.
“We need him,” said Huerter of Bogdanvoic. “He’s a smart player. Obviously just really good at the game of basketball, just knowing the game and being in the right spots. He’s out there on one leg. He’s gutting it out for us right now. I’m sure he probably wants to be out there more, but just having his presence on the court, still being a shooting threat, defenses obviously still got to prepare for him, and making the right plays. Defensively he had a couple big steals for us. Just being in the fight, we still need that from him for sure. It’s big. There might be one of these games where the leg feels better than it does the day before, and he goes off for a Bogi type of game.”
With games almost every other day, it seems unlikely Bogdanovic’s knee is likely to get any better but he deserves a lot of credit for giving it his all, and still contributing with his spacing and his three steals on the game too.
Wednesday night’s victory gave the Hawks their third straight Game 1 victory this postseason, and they’ve now won their last three playoff games on the road in the playoffs (Game 5 and Game 7 of the Philly series, now Game 1 in Milwaukee),
The fact that the Hawks have won all three of their Game 1’s — all on the road — speaks to the way McMillan and his fellow coaching staff have prepared the Hawks, even when the Bucks’ adjustments came in Game 1 to get Young away from his floater.
“They adjusted their defense to try to cover our guards who were attacking and that’s when they went to basically switching everything,” said McMillan. “Again, this is something that we have seen, we’ve really tried to condition our guys to be prepared for because we talked about in playoff basketball you’re going to see this defense. Once you see this defense now you’ve got to find out where the ball should go and then you’ve got to win the matchup. Tonight we were able to win the matchups when they went to their switching defense.”
It’s one thing for coaches to talk about being prepared but another for the players to buy in, believe it and then execute it.
“Really just our attention to detail,” said Young of the Hawks’ Game 1 victories. “We’ve been very focused and very locked in when it comes to preparing for our opponent. We didn’t get a high seed so we’ve got to try to steal one on the road. Game 1 is definitely a game that you can really surprise that team. I think with the way we’ve been playing coming out of the gate, you can just tell we’re really focused on our attention to details when it comes to the other team.”
“Not sort of a surprise,” added Collins. “I feel like the guys on the team have done a great job of preparing. Coach does a great job of getting us prepared and ready to go, understanding game plan, matchups and just what we want to do and how we want to have a mentality as a team. I feel like all that stuff plays into the fact that not just who’s on the team, not just averages. There’s a lot of factors that go into winning NBA games, especially playoff games.”
The victory also marked the Hawks’ first victory in the conference finals since the franchise moved to Atlanta.
“It’s special,” said Young of the Hawks winning their first conference final game since moving to Atlanta. “I wanted to achieve things like that when I was a rookie coming in. As a rookie you don’t know how hard it is until you have to actually do it. To achieve an accomplishment like that and winning our first, of hopefully many, conference (finals) games, it’s a great accomplishment for our team and for the city.”
The Atlanta Hawks are now officially further than they’ve ever been before but they’re showing no signs of slowing down.
The Hawks (leading 1-0) are back in action on Friday night at Fiserv Forum for Game 2 and the chance to grab a 2-0 lead on the road in a must win game for the Bucks already.
Until next time...