The Atlanta Hawks had this ‘tussin coming, and the Milwaukee Bucks needed to deliver a resounding response to restore some confidence but also to give the Hawks a little doubt before the weekend.
The former was accomplished while the latter remains to be seen. The Bucks finally looked like the team that would take over the Eastern Conference a couple years ago, tying the conference finals series at one game each with a 125-91 beatdown at Fiserv Forum.
The last time the Bucks looked like this in a setting that meant something was Game 2 of the conference finals two years ago against the Toronto Raptors, blowing them out with such ease that a Finals trip seemed like a foregone conclusion.
Funny what can change in two years, two days and finally, over the course of a two-hour game, if that’s what it was. What happened two years ago is well-noted — Kawhi Leonard took on the challenge of guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Raptors pulled off four straight wins.
Truthfully, the Bucks haven’t recovered since then and whatever air of superiority they might’ve felt for that short period vanished, a feeling they’ve been chasing since.
Friday night, they found it or at least showed they were capable of such a performance, swarming and confusing the Hawks — well, swarming Trae Young.
There was no late shimmy, no devil-may-care plays off the backboard for thunderous dunks. Most of the time, the Hawks could barely get a shot up because Jrue Holiday and the Bucks were Young’s chaperone.
But this was no field trip, with Young committing nine turnovers in 28 minutes and bringing his two-game tally from 3-point range to 5-for-21 — which could also mean he’s due for a breakout from three at home.
Young wasn’t too down on himself, and it’s best to have your stinker when the other opponent has its best night. This was no steal, so Atlanta has no regrets on wasting a good performance.
“I mean, I take complete responsibility for what happened tonight taking care of the ball, something I got to be better at and I will be better at it,” Young said. “They didn’t do nothing too much different than just play more aggressive, so just got to be better and be able to respond.”
They shut down Young’s options, cut off his passing lanes and limited his vision. The long arms of Holiday, Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez made life miserable and the Hawks don’t have a true counter on the roster.
He only drew one foul, a critical aspect of this cat-and-mouse game Young plays with Holiday. Holiday is bigger, longer and has the reputation of being one of the league’s top defenders. Young is an expert at baiting contact and drawing fouls, which often causes defenders to give him space to unleash his jumper or floater.
“It's a fine line that you have to find between being aggressive,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Young feeling us, the whole, Atlanta feeling us. But you got to do it with a mental discipline, a mental toughness. It's a great challenge. We, [Jrue] did it tonight, but we got to go and do it again.”
In Game 1, Young won his battle resoundingly with his 48-point night. But in Game 2, it was clearly Holiday’s night, as he also got out on the break for leak-outs, a critical aspect of his 22 points and seven assists along with a plus-34.
“I played smarter than I did last game,” Holiday said. “There are times right where I need to be physical with him and there's other times where I want him to think I'm gonna be physical.”
Holiday wasn’t around when the Bucks had a game this dominant, this focused. The point guard then was Eric Bledsoe, a man he was traded for before this season.
Antetokounmpo was, and was on the floor when the Bucks spanked the Hawks 43-17 in the second quarter to essentially end things before halftime. He got out in the open floor, made some nifty moves on the break and his 25-point, nine-rebound night was essentially stress-free.
“[Jrue] set the tone defensively,” Antetokounmpo said. “He forced him into turnovers. We need that from him, it helped the team a lot.”
He was even able to watch from the bench as his older brother, Thanasis, got into the act with a baseline dunk. Kinda like Michael watching Jermaine have a solo on a concert tour.
“You’re playing for a trip to the finals. They showed it’s another level to get to play,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said. “We’re gonna have to play harder. That intensity, it wasn’t a surprise to us. But they showed it’s another level we have to get to. They totally dominated the entire game.”
McMillan can only be so upset, and he’s experienced and pragmatic enough to know what’s coming. The Bucks have the better team and when it’s broken down, possess three of the best four players in the series — conservatively.
Usually, that means it’s a five-game series unless that one player on the other side is a prime LeBron James.
Young, while spectacular, has his limitations, and the Hawks got the split they wanted to get before the series started.
They just didn’t like the way this one felt, even if it was a needed wake-up call.
The Bucks hit shots they didn’t in Game 1, dominated the boards and unleashed a physical ballplayer named Bobby Portis who’s been waiting on a chance to rip off his warmups and play meaningful basketball.
It’s part of the Bucks’ intention to get tougher, along with acquiring P.J. Tucker, who admirably guarded Kevin Durant in the last series.
The Bucks have more ways to deploy their roster, hence why it’s easy to stick to Plan A as opposed to changing things up so drastically.
But what’s waiting for them is a hungry environment in Atlanta, a team playing with house money yet one that knows it has the opponent’s full attention.
We don’t know if the Bucks have learned their lesson or if the Hawks will go back to being a teacher this weekend.
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