The Milwaukee Bucks may have lost Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals to the Atlanta Hawks, but with back-to-back victories, they have officially retaken home-court advantage in the series. The Bucks won Game 3 113-102 in order to take a 2-1 series lead over the Hawks. They are now only two wins away from their first trip to the NBA Finals since 1974.
The Hawks led for most of the contest, but the Bucks rallied behind an incredible 20-point fourth quarter from Khris Middleton to take the victory. He ended up with 38 total points, a playoff career-high, and that was enough for the Bucks despite 35 points from Trae Young in another stellar outing.
The Bucks will try to take a commanding 3-1 lead on Tuesday, when the Hawks host them yet again in Game 4. For now, here are the biggest takeaways from Game 4.
A memorable night for Middleton
Khris Middleton had shot 33.9 percent from the floor in his last three games. His 6-of-23 shooting night in Game 1 went a long way in costing the Bucks a 3-0 lead in this series, and that has been the story of his postseason. He struggles for a few nights before going nuclear when Milwaukee needs it most. He scored 30 total points in their first two losses to Brooklyn … and then scored 35 in a critical Game 3 win. He topped that with 38 in Milwaukee’s Game 6 win over the Nets, but Sunday night was his best outing of the postseason yet.
The Bucks scored 30 points in the fourth quarter, but Middleton had 20 of them. He made more 3-pointers (six) than the rest of his teammates combined (five). He tied for the team lead with 11 rebounds and trailed only Jrue Holiday with seven assists.
Speaking of Holiday, Milwaukee’s third star shot 2 of 11 from the field. In Game 2, he scored 22 as Middleton struggled. That has been one of the stranger trends of this postseason. The Bucks can’t get their two secondary stars going at once, but thus far, they haven’t needed them to. Giannis Antetokounmpo has been so consistently excellent that as long as the Bucks have one of their other two leaders going, they can generate enough offense to win.
What does Trae Young’s injury mean?
Trae Young Stepped on the foot of an official in the third quarter and immediately left the game and went to the locker room. That was the moment that might have swung the game and the series to the Hawks. Young had 32 points when he left the game. He had three points on 1-of-4 shooting in the fourth on that bum ankle, and the Bucks won the quarter by 13 points.
Young’s plan is to play in Game 4, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be himself. He says he is sore and the plan is to get as much treatment as he can before the game. But De’Andre Hunter is out for the year. If Cam Reddish were healthy enough to play real minutes, he likely would get those minutes over Solomon Hill. Bogdan Bogdanovic still hasn’t reached double-digit points in a game since hurting his knee against the 76ers. This team is already extremely thin due to injuries. If Young is hobbled too? This series is over.
Middleton may have led the Bucks in scoring, but guess who had the game’s best plus-minus? It was Pat Connaughton at plus-25. Bobby Portis came in second at plus-17, and he was Milwaukee’s third-leading scorer with 15 points. With Brook Lopez limited to 25 minutes, thanks to Trae Young’s ability to attack him in space, Connaughton actually played the fifth-most minutes on the Bucks tonight with 32. Their energy was infectious. You don’t see 2-on-1 transition blocks like this every day.
By the end of the Brooklyn series, the Bucks had essentially cut out their bench entirely. It gave only 29 total minutes to reserves in Game 7 against the Nets, and that number would have been lower if P.J. Tucker hadn’t fouled out. Connaughton was the only reserve of note who played in that game. Portis didn’t see a minute of playing time in the last three games of that series.
But between these two and Bryn Forbes, Milwaukee seems to have rediscovered its depth at a critical juncture. Eventually, things might get tight enough for the Bucks to trim their rotation again, but getting these big bench minutes serves several valuable purposes until that point comes. Allowing stars to play fewer minutes obviously means a great deal, but the simple act of putting in a fresher player and allowing them to go all-out without the need to conserve any energy made a visible difference in Game 3. Connaughton and Portis made several critical hustle plays each, and those plays made all of the difference in a game as close as this one was.
In the span of one minute and 12 seconds, Onyeka Okongu managed to force jump-ball on Giannis Antetokounmpo moving in full speed …
Break up a lob to Antetokounmpo …
And finish this little floater with Antetokounmpo on him (albeit leaving him alone).
It’s not in that same stretch, but he also managed to block Giannis. How many players can say that?
The overwhelming majority of rookies can’t play in the playoffs. Okongwu struggled for minutes during the regular season, averaging only 12 per game in a loaded front court. But he’s shown flashes of defensive brilliance in short stints this postseason, and with Clint Capela and John Collins in place, the Hawks don’t need to ask anything more of him for the moment.
Still, with Collins set for restricted free agency this offseason, the Hawks must be relieved to see Okongwu coming on like this in the playoffs. They are entirely different players, and as tantalizing as a Capela-Okongwu full-time pairing would be defensively, it would cramp the floor too much to be viable on offense. But if the Hawks were to lose Collins this offseason, seeing Okongwu show this much potential on the biggest stage should at least make them feel good about their talent in the front court even if the fit doesn’t quite work. The Hawks seemed to pick a winner at No. 6 overall.