Following his team’s 116-113 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday, Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo looked calm, collected and in the least disturbed during the availability of the media after the game.
At times like this, one would expect anger or urgency from a team that lost the first game of the series at home, but Antetokounmpo seemed almost as if he knew the Bucks lost the game rather than the Hawks won it – a huge difference. Sure, Hawks guard Trae Young scored 48 points and dished out 11 assists, but until the final moments of Game 1, the Bucks were in control.
There was a reason for that stoicism. The Bucks know they are the best team in this series, and it showed in Game 2 with Milwaukee defeating the Hawks, 125-91, behind Antetokounmpo’s 25 points and guard Jrue Holiday’s 22.
Now the question is whether the Bucks, who in past postseason collapsed under pressure but survived a seven-game series with the Brooklyn Nets in the preliminary round, can stay calm as the series shifts to Atlanta.
“Obviously, he was calm,” Antetokounmpo said after Game 2, admitting that he would have been “a little more nervous” if they had lost two at home. “But I trust my teammates, I trust our habits, I think we’re all on the same page, we know what we have to do and they all knew we had to come here and get this game, and that’s what we did from the beginning. first possession of the game.
“But at the end of the day … there has to be some urgency, but you still have to enjoy the fact that we are here, because we work so hard to be among the last four teams standing.”
Antetokounmpo’s calm was matched by virtually all of his teammates and coaches. In media availability, both immediately after Game 1 and before Game 2, Bucks players from Holiday to forward Khris Middleton, who shot 26% from the field in Game 1, were able to identify all of their deficiencies in the first outing: not pushing Young enough, without defeating Hawks greats John Collins and Clint Capela (34 rebounds combined in Game 1, including key offensive boards in the final minutes), and without capitalizing on the 3-point open shots they got.
Even head coach Mike Budenholzer, who can be a bit of a curmudgeon in interviews at times (possibly the trait that most closely resembles the man he used to work for: San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich) was more cheerful and upbeat than that. what you would expect for a team down 0-1.
“It’s important for us to take every game, and while they are incredibly important, at the end of the day, it’s a seven-game series, you have to find a way to win four,” Budenholzer told reporters Thursday. “… You just have to go play basketball.”
But Budenholzer told his team in between games that their success would come down to effort and execution, particularly in the decisive moment, which failed them in the opening game, when the Hawks ‘key offensive rebounds led to Collins’ 3-pointer and the Capela lead tray.
“We definitely felt there were things we could have done better,” said Holiday, who seemed upset by the outcome of Game 1, particularly Young’s shoulder dance before hitting a triple. “Obviously, going back and looking at the video, there were a lot of bugs that could have been fixed or, as you said, were under our control, so that was something we felt was a key point of emphasis, especially for this game.”
The team heard that call. The Bucks had to recover better, so they outscored the Hawks 47-34. They needed to shoot better, so the Bucks started Game 2 with a perfect 3-for-3 on 3s on their way to 15 3-pointers on 36.6% shooting (down from 22.2% in Game 1). They needed to defend Young more aggressively and get him out of his comfort zone, so they pressured him to shoot only 37.5% from the ground (compared to 50% in Game 1), they took away his alleys and penetrations. , obstructed his passing lanes (Young committed nine turnovers) and limited him to just 15 points.
A perfect example of the Bucks’ adjustments was on the first possession of the second half, when Young, who burned center Brook Lopez with floats in the first game, committed a shot clock violation with the 7-footer guarding him only. .
“I just wanted to make things difficult for him, try to get hands … and know that I had four guys behind me is so big,” Lopez said.
The Bucks’ calm will now be put to the test in Games 3 and 4 on the road. In the past, with their backs to the wall, they have withered under the pressure of putting distance against teams with a lot of self-confidence. In 2019, the Bucks took a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference final in Toronto before losing four straight games to eventual champions Raptors. Last season’s bubble ended when the Bucks were cavalierly swept out of the second round by the Miami Heat. Even this postseason, they lost Game 2 in the last round at Brooklyn by 39 points.
But before this season, the Bucks would look beaten before even being eliminated from the playoffs. When things went wrong, especially on offense, they never seemed to recover. The triples that hit all season would not fall. The mistakes they would suddenly avoid were inescapable. The “wall” defenses built against Antetokounmpo were now impenetrable. In the past, Antetokounmpo didn’t seem to handle misses well – there’s the famous day he ran out of a press conference early after being eliminated by the Raptors – now he talks openly about his opponents (Young and Kevin Durant) when they score close to 50 points to your team.
There have been roster changes in the past two playoffs for Milwaukee, but a change in attitude (most notably the additions of PJ Tucker and Bobby Portis) and mindset seems to be the driving force behind not only beating Miami and Brooklyn, but why the sky didn’t seem to be falling after being surprised in Game 1 by Atlanta.
“We have to have the right mindset,” Budenholzer said of heading to Atlanta for Game 3. “But you have to find those competitive moments, you have to dig deep, stay together.”
Even the loose victory on Friday night did not seem certain in the opening seconds. Holiday delivered the ball on the first possession after a deflected pass attempt to Antetokounmpo on a pick-and-roll. But the Bucks kept their heads by forcing a fumble of their own on the Hawks’ first possession. The Bucks built a 10-point lead in the first quarter thanks to better shots and attacks on the paint. But then the Hawks found their hit, too, reducing the Bucks’ lead to just four points in the first quarter. The back and forth continued into the second period, with the Bucks gaining a 43-35 lead with just under nine minutes remaining in the half.
That’s when the Bucks took over.
For the next nine minutes, the Bucks outscored the Hawks 34-10, including 20 consecutive points, racking up a lead of up to 41 before each coach emptied their benches for the entirety of the fourth quarter.
Whether after Game 1 or during races, the Hawks continued into Game 2 to cut their deficit, the Bucks kept their cool and finished the job, showing both their opponent and the rest of the league that this is not the same. equipment from the recent past.
“They showed us there is another level we have to get to,” Hawks head coach Nate McMillan said.