On Wednesday night the Atlanta Hawks sent a message, once again, that they should be taken seriously in this postseason. For the third straight series they won Game 1 on the road. In this instance it was a tussle that went to the final possessions vs. the Milwaukee Bucks.
As they entered play in Game 2 on Friday evening, the onus was on Milwaukee to bring more of their defensive capabilities to impact the opponent. After all, Hawks point guard Trae Young put up a cool 48-point, 11-assist performance in the series opener.
And, the Bucks indeed looked like one of the most disruptive defensive teams in the league on their way to an absolute blowout victory over Atlanta by a score of 125-91. The Hawks never lead in the contest.
The score looked manageable after the first 12 minutes of play. Atlanta took but a six-point deficit into the second quarter. But a theme was already starting to emerge as Milwaukee took six more field goal attempts than did the Hawks in the opening period thanks to five offensive rebounds and three steals.
The Bucks would dominate the second quarter by a margin of 43-17 using a whopping 26 points in the paint and 16 fast break points to generate a host of easy shots at the rim.
As the Hawks tried to find a way back into the game Milwaukee kept up the defensive pressure.
Jrue Holiday seemed to make it his personal mission to keep Young from getting comfortable at any point in the contest. He was very proactive at the point of ball screens disrupting any momentum Young was looking to create in hopes of getting down hill like he did so many times in game one.
Holiday jumps screen side before Young could work with Clint Capela to create any separation.
The Bucks pulled in defenders to the paint from the corners even more aggressively than they normally do. Atlanta ball handlers seemed intent on making passes on the interior despite the lack of usable space.
PJ Tucker, on this play, pulls all the way in front of John Collins as he tries to roll to the rim in pick-and-roll action:
Solomon Hill is left all alone on the wing.
When Young was able to drive the ball, the Bucks would look to impact him with as many defenders in the lane as possible:
By game’s end the Hawks had turned the ball over 20 times, which led directly to 25 points for Milwaukee. That’s a recipe for disaster when facing a Bucks team that maximizes opportunities to get into transition. In this game they produced 27 points on the fast break.
Giannis Antetokounmpo would function as a free safety of sorts when the ball was in the middle of the floor:
Long, risky passes are exactly what he wants in these situations.
Young had nine turnovers of his own, an especially ugly number when noting he managed just three assists. Kevin Huerter had three turnovers and just one assist.
“I’ve got to do better at taking care of the ball and just doing a better job of just at least getting us a shot and not turning it over so much,” said Young after the game. “I’ve got to do better and I will do better next game.”
“I take complete responsibility for what happened tonight,” the star guard continued. “Taking care of the ball is something I’ve got to be better at, and I will be better at it.”
Young managed just 15 points in 28 minutes of action. He was just 1-of-8 from long distance while hitting 5-of-8 two-point attempts.
“We didn’t handle their pressure that they came out with,” said Atlanta head coach Nate McMillan. “We knew that they would come out with more pressure and play with a sense of urgency, getting into the ball. We just did not execute. 20 turnovers tonight.”
Even when an additional defender jumps in the paint, as Khris Middleton did on this play, Young seemed as intent as ever make the pass:
Collins got off to a good start and was active on the glass again but produced a modest 11-point, eight rebound line.
On the second unit, Danilo Gallinari put together 12 points on solid shooting.
But Young’s play was the focus.
Throughout the regular season, Young consistently used his ability to dribble into the heart of opposing defenses and kick the ball out to open shooters. It would seem that he has either forgotten or lost his willingness to do that.
But there is an arc to this development. In second round play versus the Philadelphia 76ers, Young had his patented skip pass to shooters in the corners taken away as the Sixers packed the baseline with extra defenders. Young punished the tactic scoring frequently in the paint often by way of a comfortable floater.
Milwaukee packed the paint against the star point guard on Friday evening and ignored wide open would-be shooters as Young forced a pocket pass time and time again.
This is an easily fixable thing. The only issue is that Atlanta is having a harder time deploying their best shooters.
Bogdan Bogdanovic is not the same player he was in the regular season. He’s dealing with an injured knee and it’s hard to know to what degree it is impacting him as a shooter.
Their best shooter this season, Tony Snell, is essentially out of the rotation at this point. He’s not being listed on the injury report but he missed a few games during the final weeks of the regular season and hasn’t looked the same since.
De’Andre Hunter is out for the remainder of the season.
And in this series, Gallinari is increasingly looking like a questionable defensive fit in this match up.
So, what’s the answer? More Lou Williams? Putting Bogdanovic in the corner as reducing his need to move off of the ball? The options are unfortunately slim.
This will be a major question heading into Game 3 on Sunday.
The home team brought all of the intensity to Game 2, desperate to avoid going down two games to the No. 5 seed.
“They played with more sense of urgency,” said McMillan. “I didn’t think Jrue did anything other than stay focused on Trae, containing the ball, just being right there. We’ve got to do a better job of screening when you have that type of pressure on the ball,” he continued. “They picked up their intensity, their pressure on the ball everywhere. They just brought that to the floor, picking us up full court and disrupting the rhythm of the offense with the pressure.”
“They didn’t really change up too much of their defensive scheme,” echoed Young. “They were more in on their rollers, so the perimeter was more open, and I’ve just got to make better reads.”
“If anything, it was just the pressure,” commented Collins when asked about the difference between games one and two. “I feel like the pressure they applied to the ball. They’re obviously a lot more aggressive and a lot quicker out in transition. I just feel like the ball pressure at the point of the screen was definitely a lot more intense.”
The impact Holiday had on Young was reminiscent of a New Orleans Pelicans sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the 2018 playoffs during which Holiday frustrated Damian Lillard.
But this was just one game in a series in which Atlanta already has a win behind a robust offensive performance from Young.
This is the conference finals, however. And the Hawks shouldn’t expect it to get any easier from here.
“There’s another level that we have to get to, where we are right now,” said McMillan about the primary takeaway from the loss. “You’re playing for a trip to The Finals. They showed us that there’s another level that we have to get to in order to win games and advance.”
“We have to play harder. We have to play harder,” he continued. “That intensity that they came out with wasn’t a surprise to us. But they showed that there’s another level that we have to get to.”
“They just upped their physicality tonight, and we’ve got to do the same,” added Young.
At the end of any playoff series, a story is able to be told. So far in this series, Young dominated the first game with his offensive brilliance. He and his teammates pitched in with enough defense to get a win.
The second game was all about the Bucks being determined to demonstrate that they can control a game against these Hawks with their defense.
Where will the series go from here?
The next chapter develops on Sunday when the Hawks host the Bucks at State Farm Arena. The game is scheduled to tip at 8:30 pm ET.
Additional questions are sure to continue surfacing between now and then. For example, can Cam Reddish help the Hawks?
The second-year wing took the floor for the first time since February 21 scoring. He put together 11 points on 4-of-10 shooting in 17 minutes of play.
He looked, to no surprise, out of rhythm generally. But Atlanta needs help on the wing.
“Basically it was an opportunity to get him some minutes tonight, but Cam hasn’t played ball 5-on-5 in four months,” said McMillan about he appearance of reddish in postgame comments. “It’s really tough to throw a guy out there in a situation like he’s been put in. But we’ll see. He’s available. If there’s an opportunity to put him out there and we feel that he can help us, we’ll do so.”
Questions haven’t really appeared on the matter yet, but (at least to me) it’s looking like Gallinari is inching in the direction of being potentially unplayable defensively in this series. The team struggles, even more, in transition defense when he is in the game. Likewise an already challenging rebounding situation is made worse.
To start, he just can’t do anything with Antetokounmpo when he, unfortunately, gets matched up with him.
Otherwise he just hasn’t been able to make any difference defensively at the rim.
Team shot-making and ball security would help his defensive situation. But that’s hard to guarantee.
Gallinari, for sure, is one to keep an eye on.
But it really starts with Young. How will he respond to the way Holiday impacted him in Game 2? That’s one to watch in even the first several possessions of Game 3.