The Hawks ended up taking Game 1 Wednesday night with a tight final score of 116-113.
That proves a competitive series is in order.
Both teams dispatched of respective favorites in the East in the second round.
Atlanta shocked the world by upsetting the Philadelphia 76ers while the Bucks topped the injury-plagued Brooklyn Nets.
Both series went seven games.
The upstart Hawks are back in the Conference Finals for the first time since 2014-2015 when they were led by Milwaukee’s current head coach, Mike Budenholzer.
Milwaukee is making their second Conference Finals appearance in three years but is hoping to advance this time around.
But Atlanta has been the underdog in their first two playoff series this year, so that might not mean much.
Here are three reasons why the Hawks could be the Eastern Conference representative in the Finals this year.
3. Trae Young
As Young goes, so do the Hawks.
“Ice Trae” is the engine that powers the Hawks’ offense and can single-handedly win a ball game.
His 48 points in Game 1 showed just that.
After averaging 29 points and 10 assists per game in a gentleman’s sweep of the Knicks, he averaged 29 points and 11 assists per game in seven games against the Sixers.
While he has not shot very well (41 percent from the field and 33 percent from deep for the playoffs), he has gotten to the line nearly nine times per game.
Young also does a great job getting his teammates involved and running the offense.
Trae Young: A+
playoff averages: 29/3/10, 55% TS
the leader and the team’s most consistent player throughout the run. even with his shot struggling to fall on several occasions, he’s spoon fed teammates every game. one of those in which he recorded a career high tying 18ast. pic.twitter.com/l36udwaqEa
— 𝚕𝚊𝚗𝚍𝚎𝚗 ❤️ (@TraeFromThree) June 22, 2021
The threat he possesses with the ball in his hands stretches defenses out to near half-court.
And the pick-and-roll he runs with center Clint Capela is nearly impossible to defend.
Trae’s ability to draw fouls against his primary defender is one of his best skills.
If the primary defender plays too close, he risks sending Young to the line.
If he sags off, Trae will either have an open floater or a lob to a big.
This will be a point of emphasis for the Bucks to think about.
Brook Lopez is a solid defender in the paint but lacks the mobility to defend both Trae and the rolling big.
If Young can exploit this mismatch, the Hawks offense could get hot.
2. History of Bucks Collapsing
Reason number two for the Hawks doesn’t involve them at all.
It instead lies with the Bucks’ recent history in the playoffs.
Milwaukee was the best team in the regular season in 2018-2019 and 2019-2020.
That only led to a loss in the Conference Finals and semifinals, respectively.
Their lack of success in the playoffs stemmed from two main areas of concern: Giannis’s lack of shooting ability and their refusal to switch on defense.
Giannis’s poor shooting from outside the paint allowed opposing teams to shut down the main source of the Bucks offense.
Milwaukee relied on Giannis being able to beat his primary defender and then either kick to an open shooter or score at the rim.
But come playoff time, teams would have the primary defender sag off Giannis and wall-off the paint.
This restricted the Bucks offense and limited the impact Antetokounmpo could have.
On defense, Milwaukee would rarely switch on defense and rely on Lopez to defend the paint.
While this worked in the regular season, teams were able to exploit it in the playoffs.
The Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors were able to get a lot of open mid-range jumpers.
While Giannis is still not much of a shooting threat, the Bucks seem to have figured out how to work around it.
The Nets used Blake Griffin against Giannis often and had Blake give a huge cushion when on the perimeter.
And after getting smoked the first two games, the Bucks came back to win four of the next five.
Giannis averaged 32 points per game on 57 percent shooting – a far cry from the 22 points on 51 percent he averaged against the Heat last year.
Budenholzer also made it a priority to implement more switching on defense.
This has helped so far but will get tested by Young and the rest of the Hawks’ wings.
1. Hawks Bench Play
The final factor in whether the Hawks can beat the Bucks is their bench play.
In four of the games played against the 76ers, the Hawks bench had a positive plus/minus rating for the game.
All four of those games came in their wins.
While plus/minus is not always indicative of how a player performs, it does give an idea of how the team fared while certain lineups were on the court.
And when the Hawks won, it usually meant their bench outplayed the 76ers’ bench.
Atlanta is not a typical modern-day contender.
They only have the one true superstar in Young and the rest of the team is made up of role players.
Williams is still a walking bucket and can provide instant offense.
He proved that in Atlanta’s Game 5 victory when he had 15 points on 7/11 shooting in 23 minutes.
13 of those points came in the fourth quarter.
◽️ From Atlanta
◽️ Went to South Gwinnett HS
◽️ A game-changer in Game 5
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) June 17, 2021
Gallinari is an excellent stretch-4 who can get hot quickly and has the size to hang with bigger players on defense.
Okongwu really showed some of his pre-draft promise in the Sixers series.
He did not do much on offense but provided quality defense in the paint and at the rim.
Onyeka could be another defender the Hawks can use on Giannis to try and slow him down.
Even though he is 6-foot-8, 235 pounds, he moves his feet well and has excellent timing while contesting shots.
If Atlanta can best the Bucks during bench minutes, they may have a shot to move on.