Watching Giannis Antetokounmpo hyperextend his left knee on Tuesday triggered something of a spiritual and existential crisis for the Bucks. In one fell swoop, Milwaukee lost its two-time MVP centerpiece, a galvanizing and uplifting force whom Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer described as “our soul,” and Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals to the Trae Young-less Hawks. That turn of events tied the series at two games apiece and set the table for a three-game sprint for the right to square off against the Western Conference champion Suns in an NBA Finals matchup that nobody saw coming.
Both Giannis and the Bucks appear to have dodged the worst-case scenario, though, with follow-up testing reportedly revealing no structural damage to Antetokounmpo’s left knee. It still sidelined him for Game 5 on Thursday, meaning the Bucks would have to win a season-defining game without the player who’s led the team in scoring, rebounding, usage rate, and touches per game in each of the last five seasons. It would require his teammates to shoulder significantly larger offensive workloads than they’re used to; it would also require his coach to shake things up to put them in positions to succeed.
The race ain’t over yet, but Milwaukee aced the first leg. The Bucks flew out of the blocks with a 22-7 run, dominating the paint on both ends and grabbing the game by the scruff of its neck. Even when they missed, they couldn’t miss:
Bucks with 22 points on 10 possessions. They've missed 5 shots & have rebounded them all.— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) July 2, 2021
The Bucks never trailed, riding their massive advantage on the interior—66-36 in points in the paint, 23-for-27 shooting at the rim—to a 123-112 win to take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. The scene now shifts back to Atlanta for Game 6 on Saturday night, with the Bucks seeking their first NBA Finals berth since 1974, and the Hawks looking to stave off elimination and force a winner-take-all Game 7 in Milwaukee on Monday.
“They were more physical,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan told reporters after the game Thursday. “They hit us in the mouth, and we just did not recover from that. They were aggressive. ... No defense on the ball, no defense off the ball, weak-side help was not there. They were the more physical, more aggressive team from start to finish tonight.”
The Hawks won Game 4 thanks largely to McMillan finding a way to successfully shuffle his deck after learning that star point guard Trae Young would be unavailable with a bone bruise on his right foot. Budenholzer—frequently, and often justifiably, pilloried for his long-standing reluctance (or inability) to responsively adjust his team’s tactics and rotations on the fly—took a similar tack in Game 5, reorienting the Bucks’ Giannis-heavy approach around what his remaining healthy players could do. And, as it turns out, some of them can do a hell of a lot:
Brook Lopez has undergone one of the NBA’s most dramatic reinventions in recent years, evolving from the league’s leader in post-up possessions to a 3-point bomber who has taken more than 53 percent of his shots from beyond the arc over three seasons as a Buck. His migration to the 3-point line has served a very particular purpose in Milwaukee: decongesting the lane to create more space for Giannis to rampage to the rim. Without Antetokounmpo, though, the Bucks needed someone else to apply pressure in the paint; you can sort of picture Budenholzer surveying the available options, only to have his mind blown upon realizing that one of them was a 7-foot, 282-pound leviathan with a feathery touch who averaged a shade under 20 points per game, mostly on shots taken inside, over an eight-year span. The realization might’ve looked something like this:
The many moods of Coach Mike Budenholzer. #NBA #BucksvsHawks pic.twitter.com/treXi6ANOg— Oddball with Vin Forte (@OddballPodcast) July 1, 2021
Lopez didn’t just park himself on the low block, throw up his hand, and call for a post entry like it was 2010, but he did go to work in Game 5. He ran rim-to-rim in transition and pounded the offensive glass. He lurked in the dunker spot for well-timed duck-ins and made smart cuts from the weak side when Atlanta’s big-man defenders showed help on Jrue Holiday’s drives to the basket. He set stiff screens for Holiday and Khris Middleton in the high pick-and-roll, sometimes diving hard to the cup for alley-oop dunks, and sometimes stopping short on the roll, in the space vacated by a dropping defender, to loft up a floater.
The result was 33 points, Lopez’s second-highest scoring game in a Bucks uniform and a new playoff career high, on 14-for-18 shooting, the first time he’d made that many shots in a game in five and a half years.
He was just as instrumental on the defensive end, too, racking up four blocks and two steals in his 38 minutes. The Bucks have been switching screens more and more frequently as the season and playoffs have worn on, but have done so primarily in smaller lineups featuring Antetokounmpo, Bobby Portis, or P.J. Tucker as the ostensible center. In Game 5, though, Budenholzer decided to damn the torpedoes and just switch everything from the jump, even with Lopez on the court.
It was a calculated gamble—a bet that inviting the Hawks to hunt mismatches would take them out of some of the free-flowing, egalitarian offense they found in Game 4, and that with Young injured and unavailable again, Atlanta’s other ball handlers didn’t have enough oomph to consistently dust Lopez in space. The former bore out early, as Atlanta shot just 6-for-22 from the field in the first quarter, its offense often stagnating as Milwaukee’s switching took away easy reads and induced the Hawks into trying to attack one-on-one. They’d get the offense unstuck eventually, but falling behind by 20 points less than nine minutes in the game put them squarely behind the 8-ball; Atlanta would draw within six points on the opening possession of the second half, but a 12-4 Bucks run reinflated the lead and quelled the threat.
The latter didn’t go perfectly—Bogdan Bogdanovic dotted Brook’s eye a few times on the way to a team-high 28 points on 7-for-16 long-range shooting—but it went a lot better than many might have expected for a lumbering 7-footer who, as it turns out, isn’t all that lumbering:
As impressive as Lopez was, Portis proved just as much of a revelation. The Bucks had scored just 100.3 points per 100 possessions without Giannis on the court this postseason, which would’ve been by far the worst offensive efficiency mark in the league during the regular season. Nobody can replace Giannis, exactly, but Budenholzer slotting Portis into the starting lineup was an acknowledgment that, without its top gun, Milwaukee needed more offensive firepower. Portis provided plenty, chipping in 22 points on 9-for-20 shooting to go with eight rebounds, three assists, and three steals in 36 minutes.
Budenholzer described Portis’s energy and passion as “infectious” and he managed to provide the juice Milwaukee needed while still sticking to the script of what Bud was asking of him. He ran the floor hard in transition and crashed the boards, attacked mismatches in the post, and knocked down jumpers—including a game-sealing corner 3 to give Milwaukee a 16-point lead with just over three minutes remaining in the fourth. In the second round against Brooklyn, Portis found himself out of the rotation, left by the wayside as a defensive liability against small-ball lineups and Kevin Durant; on Thursday, the fans at Fiserv Forum literally chanted his name. Things change pretty quickly in the playoffs.
Just ask Holiday and Middleton. On Tuesday, they looked disconnected in the first half and frazzled after Antetokounmpo’s injury in the second, combining for just 35 points on identical 6-for-17 shooting marks. In Game 5, though, they more than filled the void totaling 51 points and 21 assists with just three turnovers. Holiday muscled through Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter, and whichever helping big was waiting in the paint on his way to the cup, and was symphonic conducting the drive-and-kick game, collapsing the defense and spraying the ball out to open shooters or rolling big men. Middleton consistently got to his spots, working to the mid-post against smaller defenders and driving against larger ones, and was a brilliant facilitator in the second half, working the middle screen-and-roll with Lopez to perfection.
The foursome of Middleton, Holiday, Lopez, and Portis combined to score 106 of Milwaukee’s 123 points—a staggering number that indicates just how lost Atlanta’s defense was for most of the night, and one that reminds you of the breadth of what Giannis’s teammates can do. Lopez doesn’t have to sit 30 feet away from the rim on offense and six inches away from it on defense. Middleton and Holiday are capable of being primary initiators in the half court, especially against defenders they can take to the rack or work in the screen game. Portis, a first-round talent who has scored and rebounded everywhere he’s been, can give you more than 20 minutes of physicality and some mean mugs.
The Bucks bet on them all to be great complementary players around their no. 1 star; in Game 5, they showed they can be great, even if the star’s not around. If they can do it one more time on Saturday, in what promises to be a raucous State Farm Arena in Atlanta, they can finish the sprint and lead a healing Giannis where he was supposed to lead them: farther than any Bucks team has gone in nearly half a century.