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Bucks vs Hawks ECF Preview: Can the Hawks Continue Their Underdog Run?

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

The Eastern Conference Finals are here! The Milwaukee Bucks are set to take on the Atlanta Hawks in what should be an exciting matchup between two young superstars in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Trae Young.

Tale of the Tape

During the regular season, the Bucks ranked 1st in points per game (120.1), 5th in offensive rating (116.5), 9th in defensive rating (110.7), and 4th in net rating (+5.8), according to NBA Advanced Stats.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

During the regular season, the Hawks ranked 13th in points per game (113.7), 9th in offensive rating (114.3), 18th in defensive rating (112.1), and 11th in net rating (+2.2), according to NBA Advanced Stats.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup

Nate McMillan is a phenomenal coach, and Atlanta has looked like a completely different team since he took over for Lloyd Pierce. The Hawks went 27-11 to close the regular season under McMillan, and they are 8-4 so far in the playoffs after knocking off the top-seeded 76ers. Under McMillan, the Hawks went from 28th in the NBA in off-ball screens to 11th, their percentage of open shots increased from 26.9% to 30.1%, and their fourth-quarter net rating improved from -8.2 to a whopping +11.8.

Despite Atlanta’s improved play, the Bucks are the much better team in this series and present multiple matchup problems. The Hawks simply have no answer for two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo or Khris Middleton. John Collins and Clint Capela don’t have the frame to consistently stay in front of Giannis, and the Hawks will really miss Deandre Hunter and Cam Reddish in this series. Although Cam Reddish is listed as questionable, he last played in February and it is difficult to see him jumping right back into action during the Conference Finals. Without Hunter and Reddish, the Hawks don’t have a reliable option to defend Middleton, one of the best scorers in the NBA. Against Philadelphia, the Hawks had a lot of success playing a big lineup of Gallinari, Collins, and Capela together. However, that lineup would likely force Trae Young to guard Jrue Holiday or Danilo Gallinari to guard Khris Middleton, both of which would be problematic for Atlanta.

The Bucks play the NBA’s best drop-scheme defense, and the Bucks have held their two playoff opponents to 11.9 fewer points per 100 possessions than they averaged in the regular season. The strength of All-Defensive first-team guard Jrue Holiday will present a challenge for Trae Young. The last time Jrue Holiday and Trae Young matched up, Trae was held to just 1/9 shooting with 5 turnovers.

When Philadelphia played a drop-scheme in Game 1 against Atlanta, they got torched by Trae Young who scored 35 points and added 10 assists. Trae could get anywhere he wanted on the floor and absolutely picked the 76ers apart. Milwaukee's drop-scheme will allow Trae Young to have consistent looks at pull-up threes and floaters. During the regular season, Trae Young scored the most points on floaters (332) and attempted the most floaters (345) in the NBA.

It will be interesting to see how Milwaukee adjusts if Trae Young gets going. Coach Mike Budenholzer does not make major adjustments in the playoffs often. Budenholzer was a part of Gregg Popovich’s staff for nearly two decades, from 1994 until 2013. Budenholzer first joined in 1994 as a video coordinator, then became an assistant coach from 1996 to 2013. In 2013, Popovich said, “over a whole series, the number of adjustments, or the magnitude of adjustments, is definitely overrated” (via USA Today). Popovich is widely regarded as one of the greatest coaches of all time, and Budenolzer has adopted a similar philosophy where he is reluctant to make major adjustments mid-series.

During the regular season, the Bucks allowed the third-most threes attempted per game at 38.6, according to Team Rankings. The Bucks defense is designed to limit shots in the paint, so the Hawks will have a lot of opportunities behind the arc. The Hawks have many capable three-point shooters such as Bogdan Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter, John Collins, Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, and Tony Snell. The Hawks will need to improve upon their 34.6% three-point shooting thus far in the playoffs if they want to knock off Milwaukee. With all of the attention on Trae Young, Atlanta will need big contributions elsewhere. The health of Bogdan Bogdanovic will be key for Atlanta as he averaged 16.4 points per game on 44% shooting from three during the regular season. He scored 28 points and 32 points in two regular season games against the Bucks. Bogdanovic is nursing a sore knee and has really struggled recently, scoring just 17 points across his last three games.

One of the strengths of the Hawks is their offensive rebounding, ranking fifth in the NBA with a 28.4% offensive rebound percentage, according to Team Rankings. However, the Bucks were third in the NBA in defensive rebound percentage at 75.5%, and they should be able to contain the glass.

Milwaukee also ranks first in the NBA in opponent free throw rate at 19.3 attempts per 100 shots from the field. Milwaukee held Jimmy Butler to 34.4 attempts per 100 shots from the field in the first round, down significantly from his 56.5 attempts per 100 shots during the regular season. According to NBA Advanced Stats, Trae Young ranked third in the NBA in free throw attempts per game during the regular season (8.8), and Milwaukee should be able to suppress this aspect of his game.


Milwaukee has advantages over Atlanta in just about every aspect of the game. Milwaukee is the far more experienced team, and they have three of the four best players in this series. The health of Bogdanovic and Reddish will be important to watch for, but either way, the Bucks present too many matchup challenges for the Hawks. Although this should be a competitive series, I’ll take the Bucks in 5 to make the Finals for the first time since 1974.

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