2021 NBA Eastern Conference Finals preview: Hawks vs. Bucks

The Milwaukee Bucks stunned the Brooklyn Nets in overtime of Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, eliminating the NBA title favorites and advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals for the second time in three seasons.

Under head coach Mike Budenholzer, the Bucks have struggled to win in the playoffs against top-tier teams, falling to the Miami Heat and the Toronto Raptors over the past two seasons. Although injuries hampered the Nets lineup throughout the series, getting the win and advancing was a huge step and could have cemented Budenholzer’s future as head coach of the Bucks. Now, all that stands in the way of a Bucks’ Finals appearance is Budenholzer’s former team, the Atlanta Hawks.

Both road teams took care of business in Game 7 to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Hawks embarrassed the Philadelphia 76ers, possibly putting an end to “The Process”. The Hawks are back in the conference finals for the first time since 2015 when Budenholzer was the coach. 

Led by Trae Young, who is averaging 29.1 points per game and 10.4 assists per game this postseason, the Hawks have managed to reach the conference finals after firing their former head coach Lloyd Pierce midseason while sitting near the bottom of the conference. Nate McMillan was charged with the interim role carrying out the rest of the season, but with the team’s turnaround and immediate success, McMillan may have already secured a spot as the Hawks’ head coach for years to come. 

These teams squared off three times during the regular season. The Bucks took the first two meetings, but the Hawks avoided the series sweep by winning in Atlanta during late April. In both of the Hawks losses, the Bucks were able to out-rebound them. In their last matchup, they were able to control the glass by a slight margin and got the win. The Bucks are a team that thrives and relies on board control. The Bucks are averaging the most rebounds per game out of any playoff team and are recording 15.1 second-chance points per game in the playoffs, the highest among any remaining team. 

Statistically, the Hawks have the upper hand from three-point range and the charity stripe. The Hawks are shooting 34.6% from three and 80.1% from the free throw line over the Bucks 31.2% and 70.7% respectively. If the Hawks are able to get shooters open from deep and capitalize on free throws, it will help close the gap between some of Milwaukee’s advantages.

Jrue Holiday and Giannis Antetokounmpo were both named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team and are now faced with stopping Young, one of the best rising offensive talents in the NBA. Antetokounmpo is also going to have to battle in the rebound game against Clint Capela, the NBA leader in rebounds per game this season with 14.3 RPG in his 63 games played.  

The Hawks are good and have shocked most of the NBA getting this far into the NBA postseason. Many expected the Hawks to have success in the near future with Young and a growing team of stars, but this was sooner than most people expected. Now, the Hawks are legitimate title threats standing just one series away, and they have proven that they can beat this Bucks team. 

However, it seems it just may be too early for the Hawks, and the right time for the Bucks.

Khris Middleton was paid to be the number two guy in Milwaukee, but has struggled to show up in big moments in past seasons. Middleton has put much of that to rest this postseason as he has been lights out shooting and has been one of the most clutch players of the playoffs.

Giannis is still Giannis, dominating in the paint offensively, and defensively locking down the glass. Holiday has been able to step up as a distributor as well as his defensive efforts. The Bucks defense held the Brooklyn Nets under 90 points twice in the last round of the playoffs and has been a big contributor to their postseason success. 

The Hawks just seem to lack the star power that the Bucks have right now. The Hawks will be able to win some games, but it’s hard to picture them overcoming a team like the Bucks who have more playoff experience in recent years. Young is special though and he has that “it” factor where he could go and shock the entire NBA. 

It’s going to be an intense, high-stakes series, with an NBA Finals appearance on the line. 

Prediction: Bucks in 6

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