Playoffs 2021

NBA Playoffs 2021: Can Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday lift Milwaukee Bucks to NBA Finals?

Just as they were in 2019, the Milwaukee Bucks find themselves a mere two wins away from a drought-breaking NBA Finals appearance.

Unlike that failed run, this time they face the prospect of advancing without their superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo in the lineup.

The Bucks announced Antetokounmpo escaped ligament damage in his gruesome hyperextension of his left knee during Game 4 in Atlanta, though he is listed as doubtful for Game 5, with his status for the rest of the postseason unknown.

Seemingly shell shocked by the injury during the third quarter of Game 4, the Bucks crumbled from that moment on, allowing Atlanta to tie the series at 2-2 in a blowout win.

The series now returns to Milwaukee, with the Bucks duo of Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday expected to carry a significant load in the absence of Antetokounmpo.

"You don't want to see anybody, especially your teammate get hurt, but you kind of have to shift to somebody has to step up," Holiday said after the Game 4 loss.

"I've been around the game long enough to know guys are going to get hurt. You never want to see somebody get hurt, but again ... somebody else has to turn up, and that's kind of what it is."

After a strong start to the series shooting the ball, Holiday managed just 25 points on 28 shots across Game 3 and 4, including a 2-for-10 mark from beyond the arc.

Those struggles were similarly felt in Game 4 by Middleton, who finished just 6-for-17 from the field and 0-for-7 from deep. Outside of his fourth quarter heroics in Game 3, Middleton is a brutal 4-for-29 from long range in the series.

"It will be great if [Giannis] plays, but if not we still have a capable team," said Middleton.

"Every year you're hoping all your guys stay healthy. We've already had one guy go down for the season, it's a part of the game. A lot of it is being healthy, some of it is luck and it's a part of being a great team."

Playing without Antetokounmpo in the postseason is a familiar proposition for Middleton, with the MVP going down with a severe ankle sprain in the first round against Miami last season, forcing him out in the first half of Game 4. On that night, Middleton carried the Bucks to a win, finishing with 36 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.

Playing without Giannis

The Bucks were 6-5 with Antetokounmpo out of the lineup during the 2020-21 regular season, going 0-2 against playoff opponents with losses to the New York Knicks and Dallas Mavericks.

Holiday and Middleton without Giannis on the floor (via Cleaning the Glass)
Possessions Ortg Drtg Net
Regular season 1040 119.0 118.8 +0.2
Postseason 191 108.9 114.1 -5.2

When looking at the numbers with Middleton and Holiday on the floor without Giannis, one side of the ball stands out from the other. Dominant on the defensive end for much of the postseason, the Bucks defence has cratered without the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year on the floor.

Overall, Milwaukee is giving up 104.3 points per 100 possessions with Antetokounmpo on the floor in the postseason, while leaking 114.3 when he is on the bench.

Complicating matters further is the season-ending injury to starting guard Donte DiVincenzo, with the energetic defender a feature in the Bucks' two most used lineups alongside Middleton and Holiday when Antetokounmpo was on the bench during the regular season. While the DiVincenzo injury has been overlooked by many, Milwaukee now finds itself down two starters in a disastrous blow at this time of the year.

Additionally, the Bucks offence has struggled in the playoffs without their star, as Milwaukee have shot an ice cold 30.6 percent from three across 15 playoff games, well down on its 38.9 percent mark from the regular season.

Middleton and Holiday are more than adequate creators in the halfcourt, capable of both scoring and facilitating to acquire good looks at the basket. But without the paint dominance of Antetokounmpo on the floor, the pair are going to have to find the range from the outside to help the Milwaukee offence come unglued.

Perhaps the biggest question that lingers for head coach Mike Budenholzer will be the rotation, with Milwaukee finding recent success with its preferred small ball lineup.

In 104 possessions this postseason, the lineup of Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Holiday, P.J. Tucker and Pat Connaughton is posting a whopping offensive rating of 135.6 while only giving up 105.8 down the other end.

Who starts for the Bucks without Giannis?
Possessions Ortg Drtg Net
Core four with Connaughton 25 64.0 133.3 -69.3
Core four with Portis 12 91.7 100.0 -8.3

Much maligned in the past for not leaning on his stars enough, Budenholzer has essentially cut his rotation to seven men with a little bit of a Bryn Forbes heat check mixed in. Despite Connaughton and Portis playing key roles off the bench against Atlanta, the above table shows that Milwaukee is about to enter unchartered territory.

Ignore the advanced numbers, just simply focus on the total possessions. With Connaughton and Portis being the obvious options to replace Antetokounmpo, the Bucks are going to run out a lineup that has barely played together during the postseason.

While the Bucks have availability concerns of their own, the Hawks are in a similar boat with Trae Young (foot) and Clint Capela (eye) both listed as questionable for Game 5.

Young has torched the Bucks at times in the pick-and-roll this series, frequently taking advantage of a back-peddling Lopez to hit difficult midrange floaters. In fact, the Hawks have feasted in the midrange as a group this series, connecting on 57.1 percent of their 63 attempts.

Unlike earlier in the series, the Bucks won't have the small ball safety blanket to ramp up the perimeter defence by switching at all positions.

In a postseason that has produced devastating injuries with cruel frequency, the fact a drought-breaking finals appearance hinges on the health of star players is no surprise. The Bucks have the individual talent to win this series, but losing Antetokounmpo has robbed them of arguably the most versatile defender in the league, and therein lies the problem.

If Middleton, Holiday and the Bucks finally find the range from the outside, it might be enough. If not, they'll have to figure it out on the defensive end, which is easier said than done without Antetokounmpo.

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