After his team’s 116-113 loss to the visiting Atlanta Hawks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday, Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo looked calm, collected and not the least perturbed during postgame media availability.
In times like this, you would expect anger or urgency from a team that dropped the series opener at home, but Antetokounmpo seemed almost as if he knew the Bucks lost the game rather than the Hawks won it – a major difference. Sure, Hawks guard Trae Young scored 48 points and dished out 11 assists, but up 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 better team in this series, and it showed in Game 2 with Milwaukee blowing out 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 postseasons have crumbled under pressure but survived a seven-game series with the Brooklyn Nets last round, can remain calm as the series shifts to Atlanta.
“Obviously, I was calm,” Antetokounmpo said after Game 2, conceding that he’d have been “a little bit more nervous” had they dropped two at home. “But I trust my teammates, trust our habits, I think everybody’s on the same page, we know what we’ve got to do, and everybody knew we had to come in here and get this game, and that’s what we did from the first possession of the game.
“But at the end of the day … there’s got to be some urgency, but you still have to enjoy the fact that we’re here, because we worked extremely hard to be in the last four teams standing.”
Antetokounmpo’s tranquility was matched by virtually all of his teammates and coaches. In media availabilities both immediately after Game 1 and leading into Game 2, Bucks players from Holiday to forward Khris Middleton, who shot 26% from the field in the first contest, could pinpoint all their deficiencies in the first outing: not pressuring Young enough, not boxing out Hawks big men John Collins and Clint Capela (a combined 34 rebounds in Game 1, including key offensive boards in the waning minutes), and not capitalizing on the 3-point open looks they got.
Even head coach Mike Budenholzer, who at times can be a bit of a curmudgeon in interviews (possibly the trait that most resembles the man he used to work for: the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich) was more joyous and optimistic than one would expect for a team down 0-1.
“It’s important for us just to take each game, and while they’re incredibly important, at the end of the day, it’s a seven-game series, you gotta find a way to win four,” Budenholzer told reporters on Thursday. “… You just gotta go play basketball.”
But Budenholzer told his team between games that their success would come down to effort and execution, particularly in crunch time, which failed them in the opening game, when key offensive rebounds by the Hawks led to a Collins 3-pointer and Capela’s lead-taking layup.
“We definitely felt there were things we could’ve done better,” said Holiday, who seemed annoyed by the outcome of Game 1, particularly the shimmy Young broke out before converting a 3-pointer. “Obviously, going back and looking at film, there were a lot of mistakes that could have been corrected, or, like you said, were in our control, so that was something that we felt was a key point of emphasis, especially for this game.”
The team heeded that call. The Bucks had to rebound better, so they outrebounded the Hawks 47-34. They needed to shoot better, so the Bucks started Game 2 a perfect 3-for-3 on triples on their way to 15 made 3s on 36.6% shooting (up from 22.2% in Game 1). They needed to guard Young more aggressively and get him out of his comfort zone, so they pressured him into shooting just 37.5% from the floor (down from 50% in Game 1), took away his alley-oops and penetrations, clogged up 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 torched center Brook Lopez on floaters in the first game, committed a shot-clock violation with the 7-footer solely guarding him.
“I just wanted to make things difficult for him, try to have hands … and knowing that I had four guys behind me is just so big,” Lopez said.
The Bucks’ calmness will now be tested in Games 3 and 4 on the road. In the past, with their backs against the wall, they have wilted under the pressure of putting confident teams away. In 2019, the Bucks took a 2-0 Eastern Conference finals lead into Toronto before dropping four straight to the eventual champion Raptors. Last season’s bubble ended with the Bucks being gentlemanly swept out of the second round by the Miami Heat. Even this postseason, they dropped Game 2 in the last round in Brooklyn by 39 points.
But before this season, the Bucks would look defeated before even being eliminated from the playoffs. When things broke down, particularly on offense, they would never seem to recover. The 3-pointers they hit all season wouldn’t fall. The mistakes they would avoid suddenly were inescapable. The “wall” defenses built against Antetokounmpo were now impenetrable. In the past, Antetokounmpo didn’t seem to handle failure well – he famously bolted early from a news conference after being eliminated by the Raptors – he now openly talks up his opponents (Young and Kevin Durant) when they drop close to 50 points on his team.
There has been roster turnover from the past two playoffs for Milwaukee, but a change in attitude (most notably in the additions of P.J. Tucker and Bobby Portis) and mentality seems to be the driving force behind not only getting past Miami and Brooklyn, but why the sky didn’t appear to be falling after being upset in Game 1 against Atlanta.
“We’ve got to have the right mindset,” Budenholzer said about heading to Atlanta for Game 3. “But you gotta find those competitive moments, you gotta dig deep, stay together.”
Even Friday night’s blowout didn’t look like a sure thing in the opening seconds. Holiday turned the ball over on the first possession after an off-target pass attempt to Antetokounmpo on a pick-and-roll. But the Bucks kept their heads by forcing a turnover of their own on the Hawks’ first possession. The Bucks built a 10-point lead in the first quarter off of better shooting and attacking the paint. But then the Hawks found their stroke as well, cutting the Bucks’ lead to as low as four points in the opening quarter. The back-and-forth continued into the second period, with the Bucks nursing a 43-35 lead with just under nine minutes remaining in the half.
That’s when the Bucks took over.
Over the next nine minutes, the Bucks outscored the Hawks 34-10, including 20 consecutive points during one run, building up a lead as high as 41 before each coach emptied their benches for the entirety of the fourth quarter.
Whether after Game 1 or during runs the Hawks went on in Game 2 to cut into 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 team from the recent past.
“They showed us there’s another level we have to get to,” Hawks head coach Nate McMillan said.