Hawks host Bucks with Eastern Conference finalists floundering
The Milwaukee Bucks have missed key men in a slow start to their title defence, but the Atlanta Hawks are also out of form ahead of Sunday's game.
Less than five months have passed since the Milwaukee Bucks faced the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Bucks advanced in six games and went on to win the NBA title, but the Hawks' surprise run meant the 2020-21 season was one both teams could reflect fondly on.
However, the early indications are 2021-22 will not be counted in the same category.
While there is a long way left to go in this campaign, the two teams enter Sunday's first regular-season meeting both below the playoff line. The Bucks are 6-7, while the Hawks have regressed significantly to 4-9.
Antetokounmpo is on course for an unprecedented fourth straight season averaging 25.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game but sat out of Friday's defeat to the Boston Celtics after spraining his ankle.
"He's kind of tested it a little bit twice today and he's just not able to go," coach Mike Budenholzer said before that game. "I know he'll get treatment, he'll probably get a lift, he'll do everything he can to get back as soon as possible."
Those words do not indicate an immediate return, even if he was originally listed as "probable" to play. Middleton has been out due to coronavirus but may return against the Hawks.
These mitigating factors are not available to Atlanta. They have named the five-man lineup that started their playoff run – prior to De'Andre Hunter's knee injury – on 11 occasions.
The Hawks should look to make the most of playing the short-handed champions and get their season back on track.
Atlanta Hawks – Trae Young
Young will not be short of motivation for this one. He scored 48 points in Game 1 against the Bucks, almost single-handedly winning the series opener as he attempted 34 field goals – the third-most by any player in a single game in the 2020-21 postseason – as well as contributing 11 assists.
But a combination of form and fitness then deserted the breakout star of the playoffs. He had just 15 points in Game 2, before rebounding with 35 in Game 3, only to suffer a foot injury that kept him out of the next two. Young returned with 23.5 per cent field goal shooting in Game 6 as Milwaukee sealed the series.
Atlanta's reliance on Young to both score and create became a real issue when he was faced with elite defense, forcing nine turnovers in Game 2 alone. He has a point to prove now.
Milwaukee Bucks – Jrue Holiday
The source of that elite defense was Holiday, who had scored 33 points in Game 1 but allowed Young too much space on the other side of the ball. The Bucks point guard quickly addressed that issue.
Holiday teamed up with Brook Lopez to effectively shut down Young, striking the right balance between aggressive defense and keeping a dangerous opponent away from the foul line; he attempted 12 free throws in Game 1 alone but only returned to the line 16 more times in the whole series.
An excellent display in Game 6 saw Holiday contribute 27 points, nine assists, nine rebounds, four steals and two blocks, offset only slightly by six turnovers. It is this sort of performance that will be required on Sunday. With Antetokounmpo and Middleton doubts, Holiday will have to drive Milwaukee on offense while being careful not to give Young free rein at the other end.
Key battle – Could Capela dominate?
It is not only the big names that have been missing for the Bucks, but also the big men. Lopez has not featured since the opening night of the season due to a back issue, while the absence of Antetokounmpo, who can play the five, deals a further blow to Milwaukee's depth.
Bobby Portis is set to line up against Clint Capela, who will expect to dominate his opponent on the boards, with 11.2 rebounds per game this year – a mark only Antetokounmpo on the Bucks' roster can top.
Capela has already been key for Atlanta in limiting the damage during their poor run. The Hawks's 110.1 defensive rating is the third-worst in the league, but that improves to 108.7 with Capela on the floor, by far the best rating of the team's regular starters.
The Hawks might have taken the Bucks to six games in the playoffs, but this has been a series Milwaukee have dominated. Including that 4-2 Eastern Conference Finals victory, they are 16-4 in the teams' past 20 meetings. Atlanta won the opening playoff game by three but then lost four of the following five by double digits.
The Bucks have a 114-112 edge all-time in the regular season.