Following an unconventional Game 4, the Atlanta Hawks have evened the Eastern Conference Finals with the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Hawks were behind the 8-ball to start the contest, with All-Star guard Trae Young sidelined with a bone bruise in his foot. They still jumped out to a commanding lead early on behind stout defence in the first half. In the second half, the injury bug came for the Bucks, as two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo went down with a hyperextended knee in the third quarter.
The Bucks may have dodged a bullet, though, as Antetokounmpo's MRI resulted reportedly revealed no structural damage and his "ligaments are sound." However, he is still without a timetable for return.
While Young may be able to return for Game 5 - he's currently listed as a game-time decision - each team may be without their best player in a pivotal matchup that could decide the series.
With that in mind, here's what to watch for as the Hawks and Bucks try to put themselves one win away from the NBA Finals.
What to watch for
Trae Young (foot): Game-time decision
As mentioned, Young is listed as a game-time decision for Game 5 with a bone bruise in his right foot. The All-Star guard was also listed as a game-time decision ahead of Game 4 before it was announced just prior to tip that he would not be available for Atlanta.
Even without Young, the Hawks' supporting cast stepped up to get the job done and tie the series at two games apiece, but as ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported, the superstar has hopes of returning for Game 5.
Young was unstoppable in Game 1 of the series, lighting up the Bucks for 48 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds in a shocking road win. Milwaukee made life much more difficult for the prolific playmaker in Game 2, holding Young to his lowest scoring and assist total of the postseason, only tallying 15 points and three assists to come away with a blowout victory.
Young was able to get back to his ways as a dominant scorer in Game 3, erupting for 35 points while shooting 52.2 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from 3 but the Bucks still shut down his passing valves. Holding Young to just four assists, his second-lowest assist total of the playoffs, Milwaukee appeared to have found the right gameplan to contain the 22-year-old before he went down with a foot injury.
Should Young be able to return for Game 5, it will be interesting to see if he can get back to his ways as a scorer and passer to give Atlanta the edge in the series.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (knee): Doubtful
Just when you thought injuries couldn't possibly play a bigger role in the 2021 NBA Playoffs, the two-time MVP goes down with a brutal knee hyperextension that leaves his status for the remainder of the series (and beyond) in doubt.
According to ESPN's Zach Lowe and Adrian Wojnarowski, Antetokounmpo's MRI revealed no structural damage and his ligaments are "sound," but there is still no timetable for his return.
A crushing blow to the surging Bucks, Antetokounmpo suffered the knee injury in the third quarter when he went up for a rebound with Hawks center Clint Capela. He landed awkwardly and immediately grabbed his knee, eventually rising to his feet to be helped off the floor by his brother, Thanasis. Antetokounmpo walked back to the locker room under his own power, then came back out to the bench for a brief moment, instilling some hope among Milwaukee fans.
Giannis then went straight back to the locker room before it was announced he would be out for the remainder of Game 4. Even following better-than-expected MRI results, the Bucks will have to begin game-planning without Antetokounmpo's 26.5 points, 10.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.0 blocks per game in this series - not exactly an easy void to fill.
Who steps up?
In Game 4, three-time Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams made his first career playoff start in place of Young and he didn't let his team down. Going for a team-high 21 points on an efficient 7-for-9 shooting from the field and 2-for-3 shooting from 3-point range, Williams chipped in exactly what was needed of him in Young's absence. Add to it that he also dished out eight assists, assuming the role as Atlanta's primary floor general, and the experienced, 34-year-old veteran's poise was on full display in a massive moment for his team.
Kevin Huerter continued his impressive breakout postseason, while Bogdan Bogdanovic finally found his shooting touch for the first time in this series. Bogdanovic stuffed the stat sheet with 20 points, five assists, four steals and three rebounds, contributing his part to fill Young's void.
The biggest surprise came from former top-10 pick Cam Reddish, who in just his second game of NBA action since February, added 12 points, five boards, two assists and two steals to the box score.
If Young is forced to miss Game 5, Atlanta will need the combination of Williams, Huerter, Bogdanovic and Reddish to repeat their Game 4 performances.
The Bucks played the greater majority of Game 4 with Antetokounmpo on the floor, so there wasn't a great indicator of who will fill his minutes and production moving forward.
While it's safe to assume that Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday will need to bring a consistent scoring presence for Milwaukee to keep its championship hopes alive, who are the other players that will have to step up to fill that void?
Two players that immediately come to mind: Bobby Portis and Pat Connaughton. Minutes and production have been up-and-down for the duo this postseason, but they have both proved that they can get hot and make an impact.
Portis' intensity, physicality and scoring punch have already affected this series, as he's averaging 10.3 points and 5.5 rebounds in a brief 17.4 minutes per game. Connaughton has been a streaky offensive player these playoffs, but with four games of three or more made 3-pointers, his perimeter shooting and hustle on the glass could fill some holes.
It will be interesting to see who head coach Mike Budenholzer elects to use in the starting lineup, but Connaughton is a likely candidate because of his versatility.
Don't be surprised if he also elects to go to Thanasis Antetokounmpo to add some heart and hustle to a team that will desperately need it without their best player.
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