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Injuries Are Haunting the NBA Playoffs. How Teams Respond Will Decide Them.

Atlanta found a way to steal Game 4 without its superstar. Milwaukee may have to do the same in Game 5. It’s been an all-too-common theme this postseason, and one that isn’t likely to go away.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It took him two quarters—Atlanta traffic can be brutal, I hear—but Giannis Antetokounmpo showed up at State Farm Arena for the third quarter of Game 4. Not the tentative shadow of a star who’d scored just six points and air-balled two free throws in the first half, but the real one. The one with two MVP trophies on his mantel; the one averaging 29-13-5 in these playoffs; the one who hung 40 to eliminate the Nets, and who’d played a massive role in giving Milwaukee the chance to take a 3-1 lead in the Eastern Conference finals.

Giannis started the second half by swatting a would-be dunk by Clint Capela, and then throwing down a monster slam of his own. He attacked downhill in the pick-and-roll from the top of the key, bull-rushed his way into the paint for a short push shot, and rotated like a madman defensively.

The Hawks kept scoring, too, even without injured playmaking engine Trae Young, who was ruled out just before tip-off with a bone bruise in his right foot after accidentally stepping on a referee in Game 3. But coming off a dismal first half in which the Bucks looked almost impossibly lost and bereft of offensive ideas, Giannis’s arrival was a much-needed breath of fresh air, one that helped lop five points off of Atlanta’s 13-point halftime lead in less than five minutes. He was here, and so were the Bucks, and so was that chance to put the conference finals in a stranglehold.

And then, he wasn’t, and they weren’t, and it wasn’t.

It was a play Antetokounmpo’s probably made a thousand times, sliding over from the weak side to try to break up a lob. There was contact in the air, leading to his left leg becoming tangled with Capela’s right. Then an awkward, full-force landing on that left leg. Giannis immediately howled on the court and grabbed for his hyperextended knee.

Antetokounmpo would return to the bench, if only briefly, but not to the game. He could do nothing but watch as Atlanta poured it on, pushing the lead as high as 25 on the way to a 110-88 win that leveled the series at 2-2. Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer told reporters after the game that he had no updates on his superstar’s status. Follow-up tests on Wednesday will tell the tale.

Hours earlier, Young’s absence had Bucks fans daring to dream of an easy path to the Finals. Then, suddenly, they were watching Antetokounmpo gingerly hobble back to the locker room, aided by his brother Thanasis, his status for the rest of the series in doubt. That’s how quickly everything can change, can come unmoored, can be cast into chaos.

“Obviously, Giannis is a big part of our soul, our fiber,” Budenholzer said. “I’m sure there is the human element, the concern, the care for him is real.”

It’s a brutal story, but a familiar one this postseason; the Lakers, Sixers, Mavericks, Nets, Jazz, Clippers, and Suns know it well. Injuries have come to haunt so much of these 2021 playoffs, and it looks like they’ll determine the shape of the rest of the Eastern Conference finals, too. But so will each team’s response to them.

After Young went down, coach Nate McMillan and his Hawks proved they can withstand the loss of their best player and still come out with a game plan, rotation, and approach sharp enough to win a playoff game. If Giannis can’t go, becoming the 10th 2021 NBA All-Star to miss time this postseason—a number that doesn’t include Young, a 2020 All-Star who didn’t make this year’s cut—can Bud and the Bucks do the same?

McMillan, as he has so often since taking the reins for the ousted Lloyd Pierce midway through the season, made sure the short-handed Hawks were organized. Despite entering the game down 2-1 and without their transcendent table-setter, they never looked frantic; they just moved the ball, ran their stuff, forced Milwaukee to defend multiple actions throughout the shot clock, and seized the good scoring chances that resulted. It worked. Six Hawks finished in double figures, Atlanta notched 26 assists on 43 made baskets, and a team that had labored to generate good looks with Young on the bench in this series wound up scoring 119.6 points per 100 possessions—its best offensive outing since Game 1 against Philadelphia.

On the other end, the Hawks combined ramped-up ball pressure at the point of attack with aggressively loading up in the lane, aiming to keep Giannis and the rest of the Bucks’ drivers away from the basket and make a shaky jump-shooting opponent beat them from outside. The physicality and paint-packing worked, too. After scoring 70, 62, and 56 points in the paint through the first three games of the series, Milwaukee managed just 44 in Game 4. And with the forays to the rim limited, the Bucks weren’t able to consistently make Atlanta pay from the perimeter, shooting just 11-for-44 outside the paint.

McMillan pushed the right rotational buttons, too. With Young unavailable, he inserted Lou Williams into the starting lineup—the first playoff start ever for the three-time Sixth Man of the Year, who’d played 86 career postseason games before Tuesday—and saw the veteran bucket-getter do what he does best. Williams scored a game-high 21 points, eight more than he’d totaled through the first three games of this series, on just nine shots to go with eight assists, five rebounds, and just one turnover in 35 minutes. He torched Milwaukee in the pick-and-roll, working his way into the seams of the defense for his patented drifting lefty jumpers or a nifty pass—lobs and dump-offs to Capela and Onyeka Okongwu, kickouts to Bogdan Bogdanovic—just like the star he was replacing.

The coach also got a surprise boost off the bench from Cam Reddish, who’d been sidelined since late February by a right Achilles injury. The second-year swingman returned during Milwaukee’s Game 2 blowout win, and stepped into major rotation minutes on Tuesday … and looked pretty damn good.

The 21-year-old Reddish—whom, you might remember, the Hawks took 10th in the 2019 NBA draft, with the first-round pick they got from Dallas for swapping Young for Luka Doncic—was an immediate difference-maker on the defensive end, using his size, length, quickness, and athleticism to defend on the ball and wreak havoc in passing lanes. He attacked the rim both in the half court and in transition and hit two 3-pointers to give Atlanta even more of a lift. In his first real minutes after four months on the shelf, Reddish looked eminently ready for the postseason, scoring 12 points with five rebounds, two steals, two assists, and a block in 23 minutes.

McMillan had the Hawks ready to respond without Young; he also had them ready to respond when Giannis went down. The middle of the conference finals is no time for empathy, and Atlanta took advantage of Milwaukee’s shell shock, ripping off a 15-2 run after Antetokounmpo’s injury. While the Hawks were inflating their lead behind Lou Will drives and 3-point bombs by Bogdanovic (who looked as good as he has since tweaking his knee against Philly last round), Milwaukee did ... nothing?

The Bucks settled for contested 3 after contested 3, broken up only intermittently by a drive into traffic punctuated by a low-percentage runner. They couldn’t keep Capela or John Collins off the glass, and looked wholly unprepared for Williams running the same double-drag high pick-and-roll sets that are Young’s bread and butter. Budenholzer didn’t call a timeout in hopes of stopping the bleeding, preferring to try to let his guys play through it; instead, they played themselves out of it, and he didn’t press pause until it was too little, and far too late.

That post-Giannis third-quarter collapse provided an enervating end to what had already been a disappointing and desultory Game 4 for the Bucks—one in which they seemed to lack any plan for how to attack a Hawks team that would, out of necessity, have to look different without Young. When they opened the game, were they trying to hunt Lou Will? Were they trying to establish Giannis as a roller and lob threat? Were they trying to find ways to get Jrue Holiday driving downhill into the teeth of the defense, or to work switches to get Khris Middleton favorable matchups to bully in the mid-post? Your guess is as good as mine; I’m not too sure the Bucks knew, either.

They just sort of puttered around on too many possessions, not getting into an action until half the shot clock had already elapsed, and not really putting any pressure on the Hawks defense. The result: Milwaukee scored a putrid 61.9 points per 100 possessions in the half court in the first half, according to Cleaning the Glass, an almost unfathomably bad offensive rating nearly 30 points-per-100 worse than what even the league-worst and perma-dreary Magic managed during the regular season.

Giannis’s injury understandably sucked up all the oxygen in the conversation, but it’s worth remembering that the Hawks were still up by 10 when he went out. At that point, Game 3 hero Middleton and Holiday were a combined 6-for-20 from the field with seven turnovers, which I don’t believe is how Bud and Co. drew it up on the Bucks’ championship blueprint. Milwaukee has scored nearly 18 fewer points-per-100 in this series with Giannis on the bench, according to NBA Advanced Stats; if Giannis has to miss any time, Middleton and Holiday must be crisper, more aggressive in looking for their own shot and to create, and just flat-out better than they were in Game 4. Milwaukee can’t afford anything less.

That titanic “if” will loom over the next 48 hours, as will the status of both Young’s foot—McMillan has already labeled him a game-time decision—and Capela’s right eye after he took an inadvertent elbow during garbage time. Which stars can play could determine who has the edge in what’s now a three-game sprint; so, too, might which team can find a way to play without its star. McMillan delivered his proof of concept on Tuesday. The Bucks’ season could depend on whether Budenholzer can respond in kind.