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NBA Playoff Preview: Eastern Conference Finals

Here we are, finally. After an absolutely absurd and undeniably entertaining Eastern Conference playoffs, the NBA Finals are only one series away. It’s been a hell of a ride to get to where we are now, with plenty of upsets, buzzer-beaters, and career-making games along the way. We’ve seen the fan-favourites fall and superteams stumble, heroes and villains across the league battling to make it to the big show. The top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers were stunned by the blazing hot Atlanta Hawks, with the rising star that is Trae Young taking centre stage to topple the defensive Goliath. Meanwhile, Milwaukee had the last laugh in one of the greatest game 7’s in NBA history, stalling the powerhouse Brooklyn Nets when it mattered most: in overtime. With only one series left before the finals, let’s look at what we have in store.

For the Western Conference Finals, click here.

JJason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Milwaukee Bucks (3) vs Atlanta Hawks (5)

The Bucks have fallen short in every playoff appearance in recent memory, despite riding the coattails of 2 consecutive MVP selections and a Defensive Player of the Year Award; Giannis Antetokounmpo just hasn’t got it done. Have they finally got it figured out? Did their ability to adjust finally develop? The NBA might have a new favourite man to hate, however, and he resides in Atlanta. Trae Young silenced MSG and put the city of Philadelphia to rest as well. What more does he have in store? If the past is any indicator of the future, The Hawks will be in for a tough time; The Bucks won their 6 straight matchups against Atlanta before letting the last one of the season slip going into this playoffs. For postseason history, however, the Bucks and Hawks will be meeting for the first time in over a decade. The two teams went to seven games in the first round in 2010, with the Hawks advancing.

The Milwaukee Bucks could not have gotten this far without the growth that Giannis Antetokounmpo went through over the past few seasons. His awareness and basketball IQ are finally catching up to his advanced body, and it’s turning the Bucks into a significant threat. The ‘Greek Freak’ averaged 40.1 minutes per game against the Nets, out of necessity, and managing that load will be crucial against an Atlanta team that doesn’t have an answer for him. Playing reasonable defense without Giannis on the court is something that the Bucks will be relying on, as they attempt to keep Trae Young away from the free-throw line without leaving him open. The Hawks get to the free-throw line 24.2 times per game (4th most) and make the 2nd most in the NBA.

What else do the Bucks need to do in order to salt this series away? Play fast. The Atlanta Hawks may have been an effective team offensively in 2020/21, and that is partly due to the fact that they don’t force shots. Their pace this season was a relatively slow 97.6 (23rd in the NBA), whilst the Bucks sat at 102.2 (2nd). By driving into the paint consistently, and ensuring they funnel the Hawks into their mid-range early in the shot clock, the Bucks can control the speed of the game and force errors offensively. Milwaukee’s efficient scoring will put them ahead if they keep the ball moving up and down the court, and by making their opponents shoot quickly in uncomfortable situations they’ll be able to mop up defensive rebounds (Milwaukee leads the NBA in these) and handle the Hawks easily.

Fortunately for Atlanta, they’re coming off a series where they toppled some giants, and they’ll need to resort to similar strategies in order to get past Antetokounmpo and co. There is one simple way to beat an opponent that out-sizes you in almost all categories; find the open man. The Hawks had only one player average more than 2.5 assists per game against the 76ers, and that was Trae Young with 10.9. Atlanta’s lack of ball movement almost killed them, and they won’t be able to make those mistakes again. Milwaukee will try and force Atlanta into contested shots, and they swarm to defend the paint when their opposition drives. This will leave potential spot-shooters alone on the 3-point line, like Gallinari and Huerter, who can put up enough 3’s on any given night to keep this game well balanced.

The true X-factor for the Hawks is, as always, Trae Young. He’s having an incredible postseason thus far but will face potentially his toughest test yet. He appeared in only one of the three regular-season matchups between these teams and shot a dismal 3/17 from the field. He missed all his 3s and committed 6 turnovers amongst his 9 assists. One of his worst games of the year is surely still fresh in his mind as this new foe looms before him, but he’ll need to stay aggressive, tuck his head, and drive the the paint. If he can finish through contact and make the Bucks adjust to his playmaking, he can either start to stem the bleeding at the free-throw line or kick the ball out to the men he’ll force open. This series rides on his back for a hungry, hungry Hawks team that has already reached far above their expectations.

Gary Dineen/NBAE

This is what we watch NBA basketball for. Two rabid underdogs coming from exhilarating and nail-biting game 7s punching above their weight, and now they’ve got one last obstacle to hurdle in exchange for an NBA Finals appearance. Unfortunately for one of them, this journey is about to end. The Atlanta Hawks have had an unforgettable run, but all that Milwaukee has left to say is thank you, and goodbye. The Hawks don’t have the consistent offensive output to match against a team that will continue to bully them on both ends of the court, and that’s exactly what we can expect out of this series. For the record, I called this upcoming Milwaukee Finals berth right after the 1st round, though I admittedly had no faith in the Hawks. Bucks in 5.

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