What an unconventional road it has been for both of these teams up to this point in the season. One would have been hard-pressed to find an NBA fan or pundit who would have predicted a conference finals matchup between the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks. While the Bucks certainly enter this series as favorites, they still have unanswered questions about their collective offensive ability and whether it will curtail their chances of reaching the NBA Finals. Additionally, they will have to contend with a young and fiery Hawks team that is fresh off dispatching the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia 76ers. Here is the TGH 2021 NBA Eastern Conference Finals Preview.
The Milwaukee Bucks have dealt with a laundry list of difficulties and setbacks in the past three seasons. They almost went up 3-0 against the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2019, only to lose game three and drop four straight games to lose the series. In the 2020 bubble, they were easily disposed of by the Miami Heat in just five games in the second round and faced questions about Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ability to be a primary star on a championship team as well as whether head coach Mike Budenholzer was the man for the job.
Fast forward to this season, and they have laid much of this criticism to rest. They swept the Miami Heat in the first round of the NBA playoffs this season after their previous embarrassing defeat and were able to overcome the heavily favorited Brooklyn Nets and their star-studded trio. And while yes, the Nets team that Milwaukee faced saw two of their stars in Kyrie Irving and James Harden be unavailable or hobbled by injuries, they still had to weather the storm of two herculean efforts from Kevin Durant, including a 48 point effort in game seven, the most in a game seven in NBA history.
Kevin Durant's 48 points are the most points scored in a Game 7 in NBA history. pic.twitter.com/jtJYZMEgw1
— NBA History (@NBAHistory) June 20, 2021
However punctuating their triumph over Brooklyn was though, they still need to prove that they can consistently perform on offense night in and night out as well as that they can win away games.
Nobody thought the Hawks would be here.
After they started the season 14-20 and fired head coach Lloyd Pierce, most were ready to write off the Hawks and Trae Young. They had endured two seasons of being one of the worst teams in the NBA, and this season appeared to be yet another extension of that. Trae Young’s status as a star and impact on winning was frequently called into question. However, they blocked out the noise, and under the tutelage of interim head coach Nate McMillan, they ended the season on a 27-11 run to snag the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. Perhaps most impressively, they went from being 28th in defensive rating to 21st, despite having very few reputable defenders on the roster. They owe much of their defensive improvement to the acquisition of Clint Capela as well as the development of DeAndre Hunter, but most importantly to Nate McMillan’s defensive aptitude.
Nobody gave them a real chance against the number one seeded Philadelphia 76ers, but they played their game and eeked out a game seven victory behind a career game from an unlikely hero in Kevin Huerter. After defying the odds all season, can they do it once again against Milwaukee to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 1961?
What to Watch For
Trae Young’s Defense
By now, it has been pretty well documented how putrid Ben Simmons was offensively for the 76ers against the Hawks, but the under-discussed thread to his underperformance was that he essentially bailed out Trae Young on defense. Young is one of the worst defenders in the league, he was in the bottom 20% of players in defensive rating this past year and had the 12th lowest defensive box plus-minus in the NBA this season. Much of this is through no fault of his own, as tracking dating suggests that Young is expending himself defensively, he is just too undersized and not nearly athletic enough to stay in front of most perimeter players. The 76ers, much like the New York Knicks, just did not have the personnel to take advantage of Young on defense. The Bucks, however, have two star veteran guards in Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday that will be looking to take Young off the dribble whenever they can.
Clint Capela on Giannis Antetokounmpo
Clint Capela has been widely praised for helping improve Atlanta’s defense this season, but he was unable to slow down Joel Embiid much last round despite Embiid playing the latter half of the series with a torn meniscus. Embiid averaged 30.4 points and 12.7 rebounds in 37.4 minutes per game in the series.
Seeing Capela struggle to defend Embiid should not inspire a lot of confidence in Atlanta fans about how he will handle a prospective matchup against Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has the physical strength of Embiid but also has the ability to take his game out to the perimeter.
The Bucks’ Crunch Time Offense
While Milwaukee was able to squeak out their series against Brooklyn, they often looked overmatched in crunch time minutes with nobody able to match Kevin Durant’s ability to create his own shot. While Trae Young is not Kevin Durant, he is far better equipped to create for his team at the end of games than any of the Bucks star players, Antetokounmpo in particular. If Atlanta can keep games close until the end, they have a shot at making this series interesting. If Milwaukee is able to physically impose themselves and jump out to early leads, this series should not last long.
While Atlanta impressed and surprised the NBA community by being the 76ers, they are here ahead of schedule. The Bucks are far more talented and experienced and should be able to beat the Hawks if they play up to their potential. However, there will definitely be at least one close game and Atlanta is better equipped for those situations. Ultimately, expect Milwaukee to take care of business and advance to the Finals
FINAL PREDICTION: Bucks in 5
All stats courtesy of Pro Basketball-Reference and ESPN
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