It’s an Eastern Conference matchup no one predicted, with the upstart Hawks — famously 14-20 before naming Nate McMillan the interim head coach and jump-starting their run to the playoffs — taking on two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, who needed overtime in Game 7 to overcome the Brooklyn Nets.
What can Young and the Hawks do on offense against the best defense in the league? Does Atlanta have an answer for Giannis?
Our experts break down each team’s path to the series and the keys that could decide who reaches the NBA Finals.
How the Bucks got here:
The Bucks spent the past seven months building up to the point where, when they got into the crucible of a tough playoff series, they would have the means to walk out the other side victorious.
They traded for point guard Jrue Holiday in the offseason and P.J. Tucker at the deadline, adding both defensive versatility and toughness. They spent the season experimenting more with different lineups and styles to have different options to throw at opponents in the postseason.
And, ultimately, Milwaukee finds itself hosting Atlanta on Wednesday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals because it proved to have just enough to do that.
It took every ounce of what the Bucks had — plus some key injuries to the Nets, and Kevin Durant wearing a shoe an extra size too big — for Milwaukee to escape from its heart-stopping Eastern Conference semifinal series against Brooklyn, winning Game 7 on the road in overtime Saturday night.
Things looked like they might be entirely different for the Bucks this season when, after surviving another overtime thriller to begin the playoffs with a victory over the Miami Heat — the team that humbled them in the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort last summer — Milwaukee clobbered Miami over the next three games to sweep the Heat out of the playoffs.
It was a dominant performance, and unexpectedly so, given the Heat were a popular upset pick. But it gave Milwaukee plenty of momentum going into its series with Brooklyn.
Then, 43 seconds into the Eastern Conference semifinals, James Harden limped off the Barclays Center court with a hamstring strain, removing one of Brooklyn’s Big Three from the equation. But not only did the Nets survive Game 1 with a win, they annihilated the Bucks in Game 2, sending them home facing the real possibility of all of the work the team had done to prepare for this moment going for naught.
Milwaukee held serve at home, though, evening the series at two games apiece, and the Nets caught another bad break when Kyrie Irving sprained his right ankle in Game 4. Still, Brooklyn pushed Milwaukee to the brink once again in Game 5, thanks to the combination of Harden making a shocking return to the court (and playing 46 minutes) and Durant putting together a performance that caused Antetokounmpo to call Durant “the best player in the world.”
But after suffering the kind of heartbreak that would have broken prior Bucks teams, Milwaukee showed exactly why it had spent all that time building. The Bucks went back home and won yet again on their home court in Game 6, only to come back several times in that Game 7 to just barely survive another spectacular Durant performance, a pretty special one of his own from Antetokounmpo and some timely shot-making from Khris Middleton and Holiday.
Now, largely healthy — save for Donte DiVincenzo, out for the playoffs after ankle surgery — Milwaukee is the favorite to win its first NBA title in a half-century. First, though, the Bucks will need to get past the upstart Hawks, which would get them into the Finals for the first time since 1975.
— Tim Bontemps
How the Hawks got here:
The fifth-seeded Hawks just won’t go away. It was like that in their first-round matchup against the New York Knicks and it continued into their series against the Philadelphia 76ers. It took them seven games, but they were able to come away with three road victories over the Sixers to advance to only their second conference finals in 50 seasons.
Trae Young continued his stellar play in the playoffs, averaging 29.0 points — nearly twice as many as John Collins (15.1), who was second on the team — as well as 10.9 assists. Young became the first player in NBA history to have 12 consecutive playoff games with at least 20 points and seven assists. He did so in his first 12 playoff games ever. Quite the start.
Collins’ play has also been important for Atlanta throughout the playoffs. All three games that Collins has scored in single digits in the playoffs, the Hawks have lost. Against the Sixers, Collins also came away with 10.0 rebounds per game.
Prior to the series against Philadelphia, it was announced forward De’Andre Hunter was going to miss the remainder of the playoffs because of a torn meniscus that required surgery. With Hunter out, the Hawks initially went with Solomon Hill in the starting lineup before moving on to Kevin Huerter.
It was Huerter who came up the biggest in Atlanta’s series-clinching win in Game 7. After going scoreless in Game 5 in Philadelphia just two games prior, Huerter went for a playoff-career-high 27 points in the same building where he set his career high (29) as a rookie in 2018-19.
Huerter said Joel Embiid even joked with him during Game 7 about how well he plays at the Wells Fargo Center.
Along with Young, Collins and Huerter, the Hawks continued to get double-digit scoring efforts in the series from Danilo Gallinari (14.7), Bogdan Bogdanovic (13.3) and Clint Capela (10.6) — that doesn’t even include Lou Williams, who averaged double digits in 24 regular-season games with Atlanta and had 13 second-half points in a crucial Game 5 win over Philly.
So while Atlanta will once again try to lean on Young, the balanced effort behind him will be the Hawks’ best bet if they want to make their first trip to the NBA Finals since 1961.
— Andrew Lopez
Series keys: The Bucks’ Trae stopper, and why the Hawks need to thrive downtown
In his only matchup against Milwaukee this season on April 15, Young had arguably his worst game of the season: 3-for-17 from the floor — 0-for-3 from beyond the arc — with six turnovers. The Hawks lost at home by 11 points.
What happened? Jrue Holiday happened.
The Bucks acquired Holiday in part for his excellent defense, and if he can even slow down Young in this series, Milwaukee will have a great chance of going to the Finals. Bucks fans have reasons to be confident here.
If that April matchup was an indication of things to come, Milwaukee is sitting pretty. According to Second Spectrum tracking, Holiday matched up on Young 48 times in that game, and Young managed just five points in those matchups. Young was able to get his floater four times in that game with Holiday as his defender, but he missed all of them. All told, Young is 1-for-10 in his career when Holiday has been the closest defender on his shots.
Those awful numbers for Young are not sustainable, but they are a great sign for the Bucks.
Simply put, there is no way Atlanta wins this series unless Young is putting up numbers. Even if he does, the Hawks still have their work cut out for them. Despite playing their first two series against the defending Eastern Conference champion Heat and Kevin Durant’s Nets, the Bucks still boast the best defensive rating among all postseason teams, giving up just 102.8 points per 100 possessions.
Scoring on the Bucks is a tall order, but if you can make 3s, you can do it. Milwaukee is famous for giving up clean looks from downtown, and when opponents take advantage of that, they can beat the Bucks. That’s a concept that has proved true in these playoffs: The Bucks are 7-0 in the postseason when their opponents hit 12 or fewer 3-pointers; they are 1-3 when they make more.
The bad news is that the Hawks’ offense has crossed that particular threshold just three times this postseason, and with Bogdan Bogdanovic’s status uncertain, and with De’Andre Hunter on the shelf, Atlanta will need players such as Kevin Huerter, Danilo Gallinari and of course Young to provide this team with both high volume and reliable efficiency from downtown.
If those shooters can knock down tons of 3s, the Hawks can compete. If not, Milwaukee will go to the Finals.
— Kirk Goldsberry