Preview capsule for the Milwaukee-Atlanta Eastern Conference Finals series that starts Wednesday:
No. 3 MILWAUKEE BUCKS (46-26, 8-3) vs. No. 5 ATLANTA HAWKS (41-31, 8-4)
Season series: Bucks, 2-1.
Schedule: Wednesday and Friday at Milwaukee, Sunday and June 29 at Atlanta, July 1 at Milwaukee if necessary, July 3 at Atlanta if necessary, July 5 at Milwaukee if necessary.
Storyline: It’s the third time in NBA history that a pair of teams won Game 7s on the road, advancing to immediately face one another. The others: Cleveland and Golden State in the 2018 NBA Finals, and Kansas City and Houston in the 1981 Western Conferences finals. A long drought is about to end; the Bucks will play in the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974 or the Hawks will get there for the first time since 1961.
Key matchup 1: Atlanta’s Trae Young vs. Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday. The first task for both will be shaking off their dreadful Game 7 shooting performances; both were 5 for 23 in their last game, yet both also made some big shots down the stretch. This one is a simple strength vs. strength matchup, with Young an elite scorer and Holiday one of the game’s best on-ball defenders.
Key matchup 2: Atlanta’s John Collins vs. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. This one won’t be entirely Collins, but he’ll see plenty of Antetokounmpo and probably assumes the role of primary defender on the Bucks’ star. The Hawks will have to have Collins, Clint Capela, probably even some Solomon Hill and others clogging the lane against the two-time MVP. Atlanta will almost certainly not hesitate to put the notoriously inconsistent foul shooter on the line, and they’ll need to ensure that Collins doesn’t get in a lot of foul trouble.
Injury watch: Atlanta’s Bogdan Bogdanovic (knee) was limited in Game 7 vs. Philadelphia. Milwaukee’s Donte DiVincenzo (ankle) is out for the remainder of the playoffs.
Numbers of note: The Hawks are 5-2 in the playoffs so far on the road, including closeout wins at New York and Philadelphia. … Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo leads the playoffs averaging 13.6 rebounds per game. … Nobody in these playoffs made more foul shots in the first two rounds than Young (93); no team in these playoffs is averaging fewer fouls per game than Milwaukee (18.0). … The Bucks are 7-0 in the playoffs when Khris Middleton shoots better than 40%, 1-3 when he doesn’t. … Atlanta’s Kevin Huerter scored 27 points in Game 7 over Philadelphia; a couple months shy of his 23rd birthday, he’s the eighth-youngest player in NBA history to score that many in a Game 7. … Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan, who has led a brilliant turnaround since taking over in Atlanta, has gone 8-4 in these playoffs; his teams in Seattle, Portland and Indiana were a combined 9-30 in their last 39 postseason games under him. … Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer was Atlanta’s coach when the Hawks last appeared in the East finals, getting swept by Cleveland in 2015. Budenholzer also took Milwaukee to the conference finals in 2019, losing in six games to Toronto. … Every Eastern Conference final since 1970 featured at least the No. 1 or No. 2 seed — until last year, when No. 3 Boston and No. 5 Miami got there. And this year, the No. 3 and No. 5 seeds found their way back to the East title series.
Prediction: Atlanta has absolutely no pressure with a largely young group that was just supposed to contend for a playoff berth. Milwaukee will have tons of it; this is a franchise that built and spent for championships. That’s a huge edge for the Hawks and it’ll keep them in the series. But the Bucks earned much credit for surviving everything that Kevin Durant and injury-slowed Brooklyn could muster in Round 2. This one will not be easy, but Bucks in 7.