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Hawks turn on their defense, step up in Young’s absence in crucial Game 4 victory over Bucks

A blowout victory in a must-win game, coming without Trae Young

Milwaukee Bucks v Atlanta Hawks - Game Four Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks evened the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks with a blowout victory on at State Farm Arena Tuesday night, 110-88.

The Hawks were dealt a serious blow — a potentially season-ending blow had they lost last night — with the news that Trae Young would miss Game 4 with a bone bruise in his right foot. In his place, Lou Williams started and scored a game-high 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting from the field. Bogdan Bogandanovic added 20 points.

For the Bucks, Jrue Holiday scored 19 points while Khris Middleton added 16 points.

The Hawks came out of this game focused and ready and what really stood out from the off was their defense, with Bogdan Bogdanovic in particular impressing.

Even on the Bucks’ first possession, Bogdanovic’s contest on Holiday’s three-point shot leads to an airball:

He may have been called for a foul on this next play, but Bogdanovic is right there defensively and this is what you want to see from Bogdanovic, it was really encouraging out of the gate:

As part of a double with Clint Capela, Bogdanovic helps trap Jrue Holiday in the corner and John Collins reads the play to intercept the pass Holiday has to force out of there:

As Antetokounmpo brings the ball up the floor in transition, Bogdanovic is able to pry the ball loose from Giannis on the move before hustling to save the ball from going out of bounds and creates the Bucks’ turnover:

Bogdanovic can get a bit of a ‘bad defender’ reputation from other fans across the league but to start this game, he was absolutely on it on the defensive end, and it made a big difference as the made a strong start in what would be a wire-to-wire victory.

A poor second quarter for the Bucks offensively (scoring just 16 points on 30% shooting) — coupled with a solid quarter for the Hawks and a good end to the half — meant that they carried a 13 point lead into the halftime.

The Bucks hadn’t hit on all cylinders yet, with Giannis Antetokounmpo scoring just six points in the first but he quickly established a rhythm in the third quarter, scoring eight quick points to take his tally to 14 where he seemed set to continue to add to that.

However, Antetokounmpo — on an arial challenge with Capela for an alley-oop from Williams — hyperextended his left knee with 7:14 remaining in the third and did not return to the game (with many of the Hawks taking to social media postgame to wish Antetokounmpo a speedy recovery). Antetokounmpo was clearly in a lot of pain and limped back to the locker-room with help while his Bucks teammates, naturally, looked a little flat out on the court in the aftermath as play resumed and it’s here where the Hawks threw their punch.

Already leading by 10 points when the injury occurred, the Hawks blew the game open with a 12-0 run — after Holiday’s layup initially cut the lead to eight points — to put this game beyond the Bucks.

To get the run started, Williams again connects with Capela on an alley-oop as the Bucks haven’t enough size on the floor to help Brook Lopez after the pick-and-roll out front:

The majority of the scoring for the Bucks going forward would have to fall to Holiday and Middleton, and Holiday gets a decent look at a three-pointer which is missed:

Good effort from Kevin Huerter here to contest the shot despite the screen from Pat Connaughton.

Williams didn’t miss a shot in this game until the third quarter when the Hawks’ lead was, essentially, unassailable and he kept rolling in the third with this floater as he gets the step on Holiday (with a little help from the screen):

The Bucks get another decent look at a basket as Middleton gets a good look at a floater inside but he cannot convert as the misses begin to rack up for the Bucks:

Middleton is then punished for a momentary lapse of concentration as he gets caught ball-watching to an extent (I think he was waiting for Williams to drive, where Middleton would have been in prime position) and when Williams makes the short pass to Bogdanovic as the shotclock draws to a close, Middleton reacts too late and Bogdanovic buries the three-pointer:

Now trailing by 15 points, the Bucks are in desperate need of a basket but they come up empty again as PJ Tucker is unable to convert a corner three on the late closeout by Huerter:

Huerter himself is the next Hawk to get in on the action as he takes Lopez off of the dribble as the shotclock winds down, gets inside and hits the push shot over the late contest of Connaughton:

The Bucks worked their way into decent shot opportunities throughout this run but the following was not one of them as Middleton leans into a three on the screen — seeking a foul, glancing to the official on his left — but misses wildly:

The Bucks’ misery is compounded as the Hawks grab the offensive rebound following the missed three from Huerter before Williams’ snap pass to Bogdanovic leads to another three-pointer, a 20 point Hawks lead and a Bucks timeout:

It did feel as though the Bucks were caught in a low moment following Antetokounmpo’s injury and they were certainly punished by the Hawks in this stretch.

The Hawks never looked truly threatened from this point on, taking a 25 point lead into the final period. The Bucks threw together a run to take the Hawks lead down to 16 points but the Hawks weathered that storm and it wasn’t long before that lead stretched back to 20 points once again.

The only blot on the Hawks’ copybook was an apparent eye injury suffered by Capela in the fourth quarter, who took an elbow to the eye at a time of the game he should not have been on the floor. The Bucks had emptied their bench, down 24, with 4:19 remaining on the game-clock. Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan left his unit in the game after said timeout, and less than a minute later Capela suffered the blow.

McMillan has enjoyed a great playoff run but this was inexcusable blunder on his part: absolutely zero need to have Capela, Huerter or Collins in the game after that timeout, especially given the fact the Bucks had officially waved the white flag and emptied their bench.

The Hawks are expected to issue an update on Capela later on Wednesday evening with McMillan being unable to offer any update on Capela postgame.

That injury and coaching blunder, however, shouldn’t take too much away (depending on Capela’s status going forward) from what was a hugely impressive victory for the Atlanta Hawks in a must-win scenario, and without Trae Young, as multiple Hawks stepped up in his absence.

“I just respect this team and their approach all season long,” said McMillan postgame. “As I mentioned at the beginning, we’ve had this situation where we’ve got a lot of guys out and our guys continue to step up, next man up, play a solid game, play solid basketball. Lou did an excellent job for us tonight just running the team, establishing the tempo. We got great ball movement tonight, all the things that we talked about. We needed (it), we got that tonight. It started with our guards. I thought Bogi found his rhythm tonight, knocking down some shots. Kevin (Huerter) was really good again. It was a total team effort, and guys continued to step in and take advantage of opportunities when they get them”

McMillan has made solid adjustments during this postseason run but had to do so again in Young’s absence, alluding to the different way the Hawks have to play with Young off of the floor.

“We played a different style of basketball,” said McMillan when asked about ball-movement. “Trae does a great job of initiating offense for us when he’s in the game and when we go to our second unit we have to play a different style of basketball. That’s been good for us. Tonight without Trae we had to do some different things. We got some good ball movement and our guys were able to make them defend. We did a good job of taking care of the basketball, only 11 turnovers. Tonight they scored only four points off of our turnovers. I didn’t think that we had too many possessions where we settled. We made them play from side to side, got good ball movement, really established a rhythm, and was able to knock down some shots and with that, we were able to keep our floor balanced so that we could get back in transition.”

“It’s not a big adjustment,” added Williams of adjusting to not having Young on the floor. “You just know your minutes are going to go up, the time of the games is going to be different. Other than that, you just get ready to play a basketball game. We’ve got to be pros. I know it’s cliche to hear but one guy goes down, another guy’s got to step up. Coach told me that I was going to start in his place about an hour before the game, so for me it was just to lock in and know I was going to play more minutes than usual.”

Speaking of Williams, he was excellent in that starting role, scoring those 21 points on 7-of-9 from the field, 2-of-3 from three to go along with eight assists.

“We’re pros, too,” said Williams. “We know how to play basketball as well. I think that’s the difference between the guys in the locker room and everybody else. When Trae goes down, we still feel like we’re confident in our abilities as players as well. Obviously Trae is a major part of what we do, but we feel really good about the things that we bring to the table and sometimes you’ve got to band together and create success, and I think tonight was one of those nights where everybody played well, everybody chipped in a little more than usual, including myself, and we bridged that gap that Trae brings.”

Williams has added a great dynamic both on and off the floor after being acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers at the trade deadline. At so many different points throughout the time he has been back with the Hawks, players and coaches alike have spoken to his impact, last night included.

“He is our vet,” said Bogdanovic of Williams. “He’s holding our locker room, and he’s a true vet, true leader. He has always been doing that. Every time we needed him he was there for us all the time, the whole year, and we appreciated having him, man.”

“It’s funny. Lou is kind of always the same,” added Kevin Huerter. “It doesn’t matter if he’s scoring 21 a night or if his minutes are down another game and he doesn’t get much of an opportunity. He’s kind of just even keeled, steady Lou. He’s kind of a legend, just his way about him. It’s kind of — it’s just funny. He’s somebody you’ve got to be around, like an OG type of feel, he’s walking in with his hat and his chains on and coming in here with — last game I don’t know how many minutes he got, he comes in drops 21 like he’s been playing 40 minutes all playoffs. Great guy to have around. Someone who’s just there when you need him, and when he’s not, he’s a great teammate.”

Young’s status for Game 5 is likely to be a game-time decision, so it’s unclear if Williams will be utilized in the same capacity for Game 5, but his impact in Game 4 was absolutely unquestionable. Williams was wonderfully measured and calm with his shot selection and didn’t miss a shot in this game until the Hawks were basically home and dry in the third quarter.

Four of the Hawks’ starting five scored in double digits, with another two coming off of the bench, highlighting the team’s steady contribution from its roster on a night it needed it the most.

“It starts off, you start the game and everyone touches the ball,” said Huerter on not playing hero-ball without Young. “The ball moves side to side. You want everybody to find a rhythm. We don’t need people in transition, pulling up from the logo and offensively going one-on-one the way Trae can. It’s really not anybody’s game on this team. So we didn’t need people to play like that. That message was well received. Like I said, you start the game off and all five guys score before they have to call a timeout. That really set the tone for the rest of the game, and it wasn’t something that we got away from.”

Of course, with Young being able to ignite and score like he can, the Hawks needed more than just Williams to step up in his absence.

When Young missed time earlier this season, the Hawks leaned and relied on Bogdanovic to step up and fill that scoring role offensively, to be that go-to guy on offense.

With Bogdanovic currently wrestling with a knee injury, it seemed as though it might be difficult to rely on that here in the postseason compared to when he was fully healthy in the regular season when Young was absent. However, Bogdanovic has looked a little better on that knee and had a bounce-back Game 4, scoring 20 points on 7-of-19 shooting from the field but 6-of-14 from three-point range, to go along with five assists and four steals.

“Bogi is basically an example of this team,” said McMillan of Bogdanovic. “They just keep fighting. There’s a lot of guys with some tweaks and some injuries and playing in some pain. His shot hasn’t been falling the last few games and he stayed with it. But we believe that the next shot is going in. I thought he took some good shots tonight, he didn’t settle, I thought he got aggressive, tried to get to the basket and the ball was falling for him tonight. We didn’t lose confidence in him. We believed that the shots that he takes are going to go in. He’s an elite shooter in this league, and it was good to see that ball go down for him.”

“He’s a great shooter,” added McMillan when asked to follow up on his belief in Bogdanovic’s shooting. “There’s some times guys lose their rhythm. We know that he’s battling some injuries and he doesn’t really have his balance out there or he hasn’t had his balance out there on the floor. It’s difficult to shoot and to play when you’re playing on one leg almost. This kid just continues to fight through it. We believe in him, we needed him, we needed his body out on the floor because we just were limited with the bodies that we had, and he fought through it. He continued to give us everything that he had, and tonight it was good to see that ball fall for him. I believe even on one leg if this guy gets an open look, he’s going to knock those shots down, and tonight they were falling for him.”

When Bogdanovic struggled in Game 1 of this series, Huerter was one of those who also believed, and spoke postgame about how the Hawks needed him and his spacing, how it still creates problems for defenses even if he isn’t hitting those threes. After Game 4, while acknowledging that the Hawks missed those makes from Bogdanovic earlier in the series, Huerter praised Bogdanovic’s impact in Game 4.

“It’s huge,” said Huerter of the play of Bogdanovic. “Honestly, in a lot of ways it takes our team to another level when he’s on, when he’s making shots, just the ability to score the ball, to make threes in big spots. It’s something that we definitely missed for a couple games, and he’s feeling better as each game gets going. He’s such a tough guy. We need him. The boost from him tonight was great.”

Bogdanovic himself has refused to allow his knee to be an excuse and even after a strong Game 4, that continues to be the case, wishing to deflect any questions about his knee, stating instead his happiness of winning the game.

“As I said last time, you know me. I don’t want to make excuses,” said Bogdanovic. “Tonight was a better night for me, and then the knee doesn’t hurt or hurts less or when I miss it hurts more. It’s not about that. At this point everything is mental. Injuries are part of the game, and I don’t want to talk about it. I’m happy that we win tonight.”

With Young obviously missing out last night, his absence leaves not only scoring to fill but also a lot of minutes to fill.

It not only meant more minutes for Williams (35 last night, the most Williams has played as a Hawk this season) but the Hawks also had to throw in both Cam Reddish (who McMillan alluded was going to play anyways) and Kris Dunn, two players who have not many appearances in the postseason so far (for different reasons).

Reddish was active defensively but had some extremely poor shots/drives in the first half — looking like his old self from earlier in the season prior to his injury — before hitting some feel-good three-pointers in the second half in an encouraging performance.

“First I want to give credit to my coaching staff because a lot of times these guys who are stepping in like Cam,” said McMillan. “Cam came in tonight and had a solid night for us, a really good night. Those were important minutes. We were going to give him minutes tonight even if Trae played. But without Trae and losing that body, his minutes became even more important. But our coaches do a great job of keeping these guys ready, working them, conditioning them to be ready to play if their name is called. You know, once again, we’ve just had guys — when they’ve gotten that opportunity — they’ve taken advantage of it.

“Lou is an experienced guard. He really understood what he needed to do. He understood the moment that was in front of him and he did a good job of really leading this team, establishing the tempo of the game tonight.”

McMillan was later asked about Reddish again and detailed Reddish’s defense, his calling-card.

“He has length and he takes pride in defending,” said McMillan of Reddish. “He’s one of the few guys in this league that actually, that’s his game. That’s where he draws his energy from. It’s not so much the offensive end of the floor. He comes out from the start wanting to play defense. Tonight he had a couple of matchups that we wanted to get him on a few of their guys. Of course Middleton and Jrue, try to get some length on those two guys. I thought he did a solid job, his first time really playing in a long time. Just making them work to score over the top. But he brings length, his ability to guard a guard as well as a forward. Just gave us an extra body that we could put out there, especially with our second unit. With most of our guys being in that first unit, it was good to have Cam coming off the bench along with KD (Kris Dunn) tonight.”

For Reddish himself, this was the first proper game you could say he was actually back for and playing real rotation minutes, having played mostly garbage time in Game 2.

“It felt a little bit weird at first and then as it went on, it got better,” said Reddish. “I mean, I’m just not in game shape yet, but other than that, I felt good. I was happy to be back. I mean, Kev, the rest of my teammates were supporting me non-stop throughout the game, so it felt great to be back.”

Reddish’s defense was on full display in Game 4 for all to see, but let’s take a look at some possessions anyways.

Here — at the far left of the picture — Reddish battles hard to stay with Bobby Portis and when Middleton attempts to outlet the ball to Portis in the paint in transition, Reddish is in position to intercept the pass attempt, using his size and length to come up with the steal:

At the end of the first quarter, while Middleton settles from the outside he was probably surprised that Reddish was able to rise and block his shot attempt:

One of quite a few poor shot attempts from Middleton it must be said.

Again on Middleton, Reddish shows his disruptive nature on defense, deflecting the ball out of bounds as he presses Middleton tightly:

This is also good team defense because there’s a small window where if Middleton spun, he would be free of Reddish but Capela was right there to cut off that opportunity if that’s how it ended up unfolding.

Offensively, it wasn’t quite as smooth for Reddish in the first half (to put it kindly) but defense is the one side Reddish knows he can get after it and have more of a control and positive impact on the game.

“I just didn’t put too much pressure on myself tonight,” said Reddish of his performance. “Just going out there and contributing whatever it was going to be. I know I can get after it defensively. That’s something I can control. So just trying to be a pest on defense, and then offensively just making the right play, and it worked out for me.”

Reddish’s performance certainly did not go unnoticed, with multiple Hawks praising his efforts on both sides.

“It’s huge, it’s huge,” said Huerter of Reddish’s perimeter defense. “I don’t think it was any big surprise tonight was one of our better defensive efforts. You enter Cam and KD, just big-time defenders making everyone else’s life a lot easier. Him being able to pressure the ball, contest every shot, that’s huge. Just all five guys connected. It’s a big boost. You can feel it when you’re out on the court.”

“I think Cam was that difference, Cam Reddish, defensively, offensively,” added Bogdanovic. “You don’t know how hard it is to not play the whole year and just get in rotation in the Eastern Conference Finals and knock down some big shots, play like really great defensively. I mean, huge credit for him. The strength and conditioning staff, as well, keeping him ready, and coaches, as well.”

McMillan revealed postgame that Reddish is still on a minutes restriction, so it remains to be seen what role he will have when Young returns in this series. He might not play 23 minutes as he did in Game 4 but he certainly seems to have earned some rotation time and you would imagine he’ll be active again in Game 5.

Looking at some of the other Hawks’ performances from Game 4, Huerter was fantastic last night, scoring 15 points on 7-of-15 shooting from the field. Though he shot 1-of-7 from three, it felt like every shot Huerter made was a big shot, a timely shot. Huerter also added seven assists and zero turnovers, which is massive for the Hawks as they committed just 11 turnovers on the game to Milwaukee’s 15.

After a, at times, difficult rookie season, Onyeka Okongwu continues to produce really solid moments in these playoffs, contributing to some of the defensive work on Antetokounmpo last night in the first half and excelling at it too, forcing Antetokounmpo to kick the ball out of the paint to the perimeter:

Here, Okongwu sticks with Antetokounmpo on the drive and helps force a turnover as he loses the ball:

“It feels good,” said Williams of how it feels to watch Okongwu grow. “It feels good to learn him, grow with him. He’s a young cat and for him to look to me for guidance and questions during games and even off the floor, it’s just a nice bond to have. I didn’t know O before I got here, so to make a friend in him and be a part of his process, it feels good.”

From the Bucks’ side of things, the Antetokounmpo injury was obviously a huge moment, a key moment in this game for the Bucks and potentially this series going forward, with Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer was unable to offer an update on Antetokounmpo.

The Hawks were up 10 when the injury occurred and were playing well. That said, the Bucks — and Giannis in particular — were seemingly getting into a good rhythm when it happened. There’s no guarantee the Hawks go on to win this game should the injury not occur and, similarly, there’s no guarantee the Bucks come back and win this game. It was simply too early in the third quarter to be able to say either with certainty.

What is for certain, however, is that it was a clearly a turning point for both teams with the Bucks seemingly dropping their heads and the Hawks also made it a key stretch for themselves, going on that ultimately decisive 12-2 run after the injury.

“We condition ourselves to play that way,” said McMillan of the Hawks’ continued push after the injury. “That’s still a good team. They are a really good team, still have really solid players. Jrue and Middleton and Lopez, Pat (Connaughton), all those guys over there. That’s a good team. So no, there was no way we were going to relax.

“We knew we had to put together a 48-minute game, and I thought our guys did a good job of really just keeping the pressure on defensively. We were forcing misses and were able to get out into transition because of the really good, I think, ball movement. We got into a rhythm offensively, was knocking down shots and was able to stretch that lead at that time. Those are things that you want to do when something like that happens. You want to try to take advantage of that and I thought our guys stayed focused on what we needed to do, and they executed well.”

The difference between the Hawks being without their superstar versus the Bucks without theirs was that multiple Hawks stepped up in Young’s absence. Now, granted, the Hawks didn’t have to deal with the shock of that injury and absence mid-game in Game 4 as the Bucks did, but both Middleton and Holiday have already swung games in this series with their performances (Game 3 for Middleton, Game 1 for Holiday) but both shot 6-of-17 from the floor last night, with Middleton shooting 0-of-7 from three.

The Bucks had more than enough firepower to win this game coming into Game 4 knowing Young would not play but couldn’t put together baskets or stops in the first run of play after Antetokounmpo’s injury.

“We were in the same position with Trae being out tonight,” said Williams. “Like I said, everybody has to throw something in the pot. When superstar caliber guys go out, you put some other guys in the game, and their eyes are this wide and they’re like this is a great opportunity for me to show and prove my abilities. You don’t want to be the guys that let them off the hook because Giannis was off the floor. I think we all felt that energy and we just ratcheted up our energy and continued to go.”

When it counted, all game long, neither Middleton and Holiday stepped up on a night where the Hawks were there for the taking without Young, and this series was there for the taking, with a potential 3-1 lead heading back home for Game 5 had the Bucks triumphed last night.

At 2-2, it’s a different series.

“2-2 is a lot different than 3-1,” said Huerter postgame. “We know we’re guaranteed again to be playing at home in front of our own crowd. 2-2 is a similar position we were last series, a long way to go, but it’s a lot better than being down 3-1.”

The Hawks put together a great, balanced game and executed their game-plan very, very well. To put that type of performance together without Young? They deserve a lot of credit, more credit than they’re likely to receive with the injury news coming out of Game 4.

The Bucks should’ve been on-hand to take advantage of the absence of Young, even in the first half, and before the injury to Antetokounmpo. They will surely see this game as a missed opportunity, but things happened so quickly after the Antetokounmpo injury they almost didn’t have time to even react (which, I would imagine, Bucks fans will criticize Mike Budenholzer for).

Should the Bucks be forced to play Game 5 without Antetokounmpo, while they wouldn’t say so publicly, I’m sure there’ll be some lingering doubt as to if they can win without their star, certainly amongst their fans there may be some doubt or worry.

For the Hawks, should they have to go again without Young, they’ve just proven they can win without their best player, and although it came in slightly acrimonious circumstances with Giannis going down, they were still the team in control when it happened.

“Absolutely,” said Nate McMillan when asked if this was a fortifying performance for the rest of the Hawks that they can do this again if Young should be absent in Game 5. “We talked about where we were at coming into this game — this was, of course, yesterday and this morning with Trae. We were in the same position in our last series against Philadelphia where we needed to win a home game. Basically preparing them is something that we really lock in on. We feel that if we’re prepared to play the game that we need to play and these guys go out and execute it as they did tonight, you’re going to win games. They’ve been able to do that. As I’ve mentioned before, we don’t get too high when we win, and we don’t get too low when we lose. We show them the areas we need to improve on, and tonight they were better than they were our last game. We always try to take that approach.”

As Game 4 ticked towards its conclusion, chants of ‘Hawks in six’ rung out around State Farm Arena, showcasing the fans’ belief and confidence they can see out this series now at a 2-2 draw instead of a 3-1 deficit going back to Milwaukee.

“I mean, I live for these moments, man, and I really appreciate every minute on the floor,” said Bogdanovic when asked about his confidence after his 20 point Game 4 and of the chants. “I know it’s hard to get to this level of the basketball game. It’s hard to get to the playoffs, it’s hard to get to the second round. It’s hard to get to the Finals. At this point everything is hard and it’s mental. All of it is mental and you have to fight through it, and it’s another level of experience. I just live for that, man. I enjoy every single moment, and I know — I don’t think about my game so much just finding a way that we can win. My game will come eventually. As long as we play good as a team, we have a lot of talent that any other guy can step up every other night.”

The Hawks are now just two wins away from the NBA Finals, their confidence seemingly growing with each and every victory as they continue to go deeper than anyone thought possible...

The Hawks (tied at 2-2) now head back to Milwaukee in another pivotal Game 5 on the road, taking place on Thursday night.

Depending on the availability of both Young and Antetokounmpo (as well as Capela), who knows which way this series will swing next?

Until next time...