The Atlanta Hawks were unable to mark their return home with a victory, falling short to the Milwaukee Bucks in a 114-105 loss on Wednesday night at State Farm Arena.
Without Trae Young (a game-day scratch with a non-COVID illness) — and already missing Clint Capela — the Hawks were led by Bogdan Bogdanovic’s 22 points off the bench, with De’Andre Hunter adding 16 points. For the Bucks, without Kris Middleton and Serge Ibaka, Jrue Holiday scored a game-high 27 points while Brook Lopez added 20 points and 12 rebounds.
The first game back from a road-trip can be a bogey game in the NBA but without two of the Hawks’ best players in Young and Capela against one of the NBA’s best teams — as well as the Bucks’ tendency to sometimes throttle the Hawks in first quarters under Budenholzer — perhaps the first quarter shouldn’t have come as a total surprise as the Bucks ran out to a 13-0 start before running their lead to 20 points at the end of the first quarter.
Between the Bucks outscoring the Hawks 27-0 from behind the three-point line behind nine first quarter threes to the Hawks’ zero (for reference, there have been 15 games this season where Atlanta has made nine or fewer threes in an entire game) and the Hawks getting unable to hit in the mid-range with consistency, perhaps it’s unsurprising the Bucks dominated as they did in the first half, running their lead to as many as 24 points.
The third quarter initially saw little improvement as the Bucks maintained their advantage but the Hawks eventually gathered momentum and made a run to cut the Bucks lead, initially to 10 points and then to single digits heading into the fourth quarter as the Hawks continued to limit Giannis Antetokounmpo’s influence in this game.
The Hawks’ second unit played one of its better games as they helped dig into the Milwaukee lead, the play of Frank Kaminsky a huge plus for the Hawks last night as he scored 13 points.
The two sides went back and forth in the fourth quarter and the Hawks eventually tied the game with this effort from John Collins off of the steal:
The Bucks take a timeout as the Hawks, against all odds, tied the game having trailed by 24 earlier in the half.
We’ll pick it up from here and see how the Hawks took their first lead and how the Bucks wrestled it back and pulled away.
After a missed Joe Ingles three, the Hawks miss their first chance to take a lead, and a good one too as Dejounte Murray’s pass to Collins in transition is too long and what would have brought the house down ends in a turnover:
The Hawks do get themselves another stop as Antetokounmpo attempts to drive on Collins, who is credited with the block as Collins slaps down as Antetokounmpo begins his shooting motion, hitting off of Antetokounmpo and out of bounds to Atlanta:
Out of the timeout that the Hawks took after this, Bogdanovic gets to the baseline and faced with Jevon Carter rises into the jumpshot and sinks it, giving the Hawks their first lead of the game:
To reply, the Bucks drive with Holiday and Onyeka Okongwu is forced to help away from Giannis, which draws Collins away from Brook Lopez in the corner. Holiday finds Antetokounmpo underneath the basket and he gets the ball out to the corner to Lopez for the three to give the Bucks the lead again:
The Hawks get a good look through Bogdanovic coming off the Okongwu screen — it’s a long two but it’s an open shot for Bogdanovic on a night where the shot is falling but this one does not:
The Bucks would add to their lead as Jrue Holiday draws a foul from Okongwu on the layup attempt after the Giannis screen frees Holiday from Murray:
The legality of that screen from Antetokounmpo could be questioned, didn’t seem very stationary and led with the hip to set it but no call and the Bucks edge their lead to three behind the free throws.
Again on their next trip, the Hawks get a good look at a three with Hunter off of the Okongwu hand-off and screen but Hunter is unable to connect:
The Bucks come with Holiday again and this time he rejects the Giannis screen and rises into the jumpshot, making it over the outstretched Okongwu:
Bogdanovic a little slow to react to the rejection of the screen but it’s just a good take and make from Holiday.
Again, the Hawks can’t buy a bucket as this time Bogdanovic and Hunter work it in the corner, ending with a missed Bogdanovic three over Carter:
I have to imagine Hunter was going for the late slip of the screen, because if his intention was to set a screen and help switch Carter off of Bogdanovic it failed miserably. There was only a very marginal opportunity for Bogdanovic to deliver a bounce-pass to Hunter and I just don’t think it was realistic to expect Bogdanovic to deliver it in that spot. The three Bogdanovic takes isn’t amazing, I think had Hunter set the screen rather than what he did the Hawks might have worked a better shot.
The Bucks are sure to take advantage as Holiday’s three is rebounded by Giannis, who fires it out to Carter for a three-pointer that gives caps off a 10-0 run for the Bucks and gives them an eight point lead:
Not much else to say there other than the Hawks’ lack of size has hurt them in a key situation yet again.
With just over a minute remaining, an eight point deficit was too much for the Hawks to overcome and the Bucks won by a margin of nine points in the end — a disappointing end to a game that the Hawks somehow managed to wrestle themselves back into to make a game of after a disastrous first half.
“I saw a lot of fight in our guys,” said Hawks head coach Nate McMillan postgame. “To be down 24 points and to fight your way back, eventually take a lead in this game. I thought second half our guys came out and tried to win this game. I thought our bench did a really good job of coming in and giving us a lift in that second half, late third quarter into the fourth quarter. We didn’t finish. They did a better job of finishing. We had a two point lead late in the game and they hit some timely threes to kind of stretch that lead to eventually take the game.”
Coming all the way back from 24 down expends a lot of energy (something Bogdan Bogdanovic agreed with a chuckle postgame when he mentioned how tired he was) but unlike several occasions this season where the Hawks just haven’t shown up, McMillan attributes getting down so big early more so to the Bucks and their sense of urgency rather than the Hawks’ lack of urgency, citing the Bucks’ two defeats to Atlanta already this season as motivation for the visitors last night.
“I think you have to give credit to Milwaukee,” said McMillan of the first quarter urgency. “They came out with urgency. We’ve had success against that team this season and you knew they were going to come out with urgency. It’s so much our guys didn’t come out with urgency sometimes the opponent is just playing better. I thought they did play better in that first half.”
He’s right in the sense that the Bucks were on it early: crisp and clear in their execution on both ends of the floor, and they got hot from the outside too — 27-0 from three in a quarter is no joke, even if it says just as much about the Hawks’ poor three-point shooting.
But it’s probably the result you have to accept when you guard Antetokounmpo in the way the Hawks did, really forcing the ball out of his hands and those other players, to their credit, made their shots and that’s part of the reason why Antetokounmpo ended up with 10 assists.
You hold a guy who’s averaging 31 points a game to just seven points? Not only is that a season-low for Giannis, it’s the lowest he’s scored in a game since April 29th 2021 when Antetokounmpo injured his ankle inside a minute against the Rockets. If you take that instance out where an injury or illness was the reason he didn’t score over seven points, you’re going back to 2016 when Antetokounmpo scored seven or fewer points in a game, and that’s a very different Antetokounmpo to the one that dominates the league now.
You’d take that every night and take a chance on the supporting cast not making their shots and if they beat you, so be it, you tried something different and were actually able to make it work, Antetokounmpo scoring just those seven points on 3-of-10 shooting and 1-of-4 from the free throw line.
“I thought our guys did a good job of trying to stay in front of him, try and keep him off the free throw line,” said McMillan of stopping Antetokounmpo.
“We did a good job of drawing the line, making it hard for him to attack and not letting him get deep in the floor,” added Jalen Johnson of limiting Antetokounmpo. “We had a lot of guys to throw at him — me, JC, O, ‘Dre, a lot of guys being thrown at him, fresh bodies. At the end of the day you’ve got to make it difficult with a player like that. He’s going to make tough shots, get tough buckets but all you can do is make it difficult for him and I think we did a pretty good job at that tonight.”
Here’s a couple of instances where the Hawks had bodies ready to go to throw on Antetokounmpo.
Handling the ball here, you can see there’s three bodies waiting to help on Antetokounmpo if needed and it just closes any doors he might have to go on the charge:
Here, the Hawks swarm Antetokounmpo in the paint and this opens up the space for Holiday on the perimeter who hits the three:
Finally, this little movement from Murray into the lane of Giannis (with Okongwu already ready to rotate) just forces him to make a decision to pass it off to the corner where the three is made:
These aren’t exceptional defensive plays where a man suddenly just closes a gap or rotates, it’s positioning and just deterring the notion to attack. Doesn’t work every possession of course but it just helps Giannis have to look elsewhere.
Credit to Antetokounmpo as well for not only finding his teammates but also just accepting it wasn’t his night and allowing Holiday to run the show. There was a play with just around 1:30 remaining in the fourth where Antetokounmpo could take charge but just gives it up to Holiday instead. A two-time MVP, one of the best players in the league...he would have been well within his rights to just take over and drive into that lane but you can even sense from watching the game that he accepts that this isn’t his game and he gives it back to Jrue Holiday and walks away, and I’d like to see this more from Young in games where he just doesn’t have it going but tries to force things in the fourth anyways. In this case, Holiday had the hot-hand of the Bucks in this game and he was fantastic and the Antetokounmpo accepted that, even though he could’ve taken it himself and no one would’ve thought twice about it. Holiday finished with a game-high 27 points on 10-of-21 shooting.
Though Young was absent in this one, it was the bench more than anyone else that really stepped up offensively in his absence. Frank Kaminsky scored 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting and 3-of-4 from three while Jalen Johnson produced another strong game with 12 points on 3-of-5 shooting and 5-of-5 at the free throw line.
“I thought Frank came in and made some big plays, Jalen came in and made some big plays,” said McMillan. “That second unit did a nice job of bringing some energy, getting some stops and scoring some points.”
Kaminsky helped spread the floor for the Hawks — and was probably so effective that McMillan didn’t play recently signed 10-day Derrick Favors — while Johnson brought his energy attacking the rim with aggression here as he receives the ball around the three-point line in transition and attacks the rim for the athletic finish, plus the foul:
As well as here in transition where Johnson has the confidence to take it himself and then steps through impressively to finish:
This aggression has been key to Johnson being more impactful on the court and he believes being comfortable with who he is on the court has helped him unlock a little more effectiveness.
“Just going out there and being myself, not trying to be something I’m not,” Johnson said postgame. “Staying in that attack mindset has really helped me just find some easier buckets, find some easier ways to make my minutes more effective.”
The Bucks’ bench had a good night too, but with the efforts of Bogdanovic, Johnson and Kaminsky, the Hawks’ bench had one of their better nights of the season, outscoring the Bucks’ bench 54-44.
Whether Bogdanovic should even have been part of the bench unit in the absence of Young is another topic of discussion, with McMillan electing to start Aaron Holiday instead. McMillan even seemed to see the error in his decision as he started Bogdanovic in the second half. Holiday only played 13 minutes in the end and you’d have thought that if this was a spot where Bogdanovic wasn’t going to start, surely it would be AJ Griffin, but McMillan didn’t look in this direction either, nor did Griffin play over 17 minutes once again, continuing the trend of Griffin not playing more than 18 minutes in a game in 2023.
It was a close game in the second half, sure, but it’s not as though Griffin wasn’t having a solid game in the first half, scoring seven points. It was a strange decision not to play him more minutes given, well, everything.
In the absence of Young, you’d have thought this was a prime spot for Dejounte Murray to step up but he was largely anonymous on the offensive end, scoring nine points (all coming in the first half) on 4-of-16 shooting and 1-of-5 from three. To say Murray was disappointing offensively last night would be somewhat of an understatement when a step-up would have been expected in Young’s absence.
He wasn’t the only Hawk who had such a game, De’Andre Hunter’s 4-of-14 shooting en route to 16 points wasn’t ideal for the Hawks either, though Hunter did redeem some of that back at the free throw line where he was 7-of-8. John Collins shot 7-of-11 from the field for 15 points while Okongwu’s focus last night was more so on Giannis but did shoot 3-of-7 from the field.
All-in-all, I think that crucial 10-0 run down the stretch could be categorized as, ‘It’s a make-or-miss league.’
Cliché as it is, it’s something the Hawks believe in and have spoken about this season, but it literally was the difference last night when it came down the stretch and the Hawks had their lead.
“I think a couple of bad offensive possessions — led by me as well — and they’re an experienced team,” said Bogdan Bogdanovic of the last three minutes. “They were attacking us. When you get a stop, you get confidence — in offense as well. They got a couple of easy ones. I think they gained confidence a little bit and made two good shots, offensive rebound too.”
The Hawks got good looks in that stretch but couldn’t hit them, the Bucks hit theirs (and if they didn’t there was an offensive rebound where they ended up with another chance, which, speaking of, no need to beat a dead horse but the Bucks out-rebounded the Hawks 57-41 with 14 offensive rebounds and 17 second chance points...it is what it is at this stage and McMillan wasn’t even asked about it postgame: this is life without Clint Capela).
This was always going to be a very tough spot for the Hawks: first game back home after a trip, already no Capela to help with Giannis (who he usually guards) or Lopez/Portis, then the late scratch of Young, then getting 4-of-16 from Murray and 4-of-14 from Hunter, and just the fact that the Bucks are a very good team... It was always going to be tough and I think given the circumstances and the context of how that game played out I think the Hawks, in retrospect, did very well.
I think they deserve credit not just for their fightback but what they did with Giannis and even in the second half held the Bucks to 6-of-24 from three after shooting 12-of-24 in the first half.
“They were red-hot in that first half from the three,” said McMillan. “We needed to get closer and contest their shots and I think they had 11 threes in that first half. We did a better job of applying pressure in the second half. This is an analytical team, they’re going to try attack the paint, attack the rim and if they can’t get to the rim they’re going to shoot threes. That first half, we weren’t close enough. We didn’t make them miss. The second half we got more pressure, disrupted more and was able to get some stops.”
This wasn’t a bad loss, unlike plenty that have come before this season. The problem is that every win/loss is so crucial in what’s becoming a dogged race to get into the play-in at this stage. Weird to think about, but Orlando is only 3.5 games back of the Hawks for the 9-seed (the Hawks own that tiebreaker for reference but not the thought fans would’ve expected this time of the year).
The Hawks (19-22) are back in action on Friday back out on the road for two games, the first of which coming against the Indiana Pacers (23-19).
Until next time...