The Eastern Conference Finals took a titanic turn in Game 3 when the Atlanta Hawks' star point guard suffered a freak injury.

An unfortunate injury to the 'Greek Freak' in Game 4 presented yet another massive twist in this series.

With Trae Young considered questionable and Giannis Antetokounmpo listed as doubtful for Thursday's Game 5, the path to the NBA Finals got significantly more challenging for the Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks.

Knotted at 2-2 in the East, the question now becomes which team is better equipped to overcome the loss of its superstar.

The first major injury setback of this series occurred with the Hawks up by three points in the final minute of the third quarter on Sunday, when Young accidently stepped back onto the foot of an official after passing the ball. He went down and stayed on the court until the next whistle before heading to the locker room.

While able to return in the fourth quarter, Young was not his normal explosive self. He hobbled his way to just three fourth-quarter points on four shots and Atlanta was outscored by 15 when he was on the court as Milwaukee pulled away for a 113-102 victory to take a 2-1 series lead.

A day after the game, an MRI revealed a bone bruise in his right ankle and although he was able to go through morning shootaround prior to Tuesday's Game 4, he was ultimately ruled out shortly before tipoff.

 

The second enormous injury in the series arose a few hours after Young was scratched.

Midway through the third quarter of Game 4, Antetokounmpo jumped to try to defend a Lou Williams alley-oop pass to Clint Capela and his left knee buckled awkwardly while landing. After remaining on the floor in pain for several minutes, he made his way to the locker room and was diagnosed with a hyperextension. An MRI the following day showed no structural damage.

The Bucks fell behind by 10 on Capela's dunk on the play Antetokounmpo was hurt and shortly after he exited Atlanta went on a 15-0 run to put the game away in a 110-88 win.

That run was fuelled by a trio of 3-pointers by Bogdan Bogdanovic, who finally looked he has overcome his own injury.

Bogdanovic has been saddled by right knee soreness that Hawks coach Nate McMillan said began to crop up in Game 5 of Atlanta's Eastern Conference series against the Philadelphia 76ers.

In the Hawks' five-game first-round series against the New York Knicks and their first four games against the 76ers, Bogdanovic averaged 16.4 points on 41.4 per cent shooting and 34.6 percent from 3-point range. His 27 3-pointers led the team and Young was the only Hawk to average more points at 28.3 per game.

In those first nine playoff contests, Bogdanovic also played more minutes than any Hawk, averaging more than 37 a game.

Over the next six games, however, he averaged 6.2 points on 26.8 per cent shooting and 16.7 per cent on 30 3-point tries in a little over 25 minutes per game.

In need of a spark with Young sidelined in Game 4, Bogdanovic shook off any lingering ailments and poured in 20 points while draining six 3-pointers – one more than he made in his previous six games combined. He once again found his shooting stroke on wing 3-pointers, connecting on 5-of-6 shots from there after misfiring on 18-of-20 attempts in the previous six contests.

Not only is his production invaluable for the Hawks, Bogdanovic also excelled when teamed with Young's replacement.

Bogdanovic played 28:55 minutes with Williams and made 7 of 15 shots and half of his 12 3-point attempts when they were together. In just under five minutes without him, Bogdanovic missed all four of his shot attempts – including a pair of 3-point tries.

This entire postseason, Bogdanovic has shot better from 3-point range when teamed with Williams, connecting on 41.9 per cent (13 of 31) with him compared to 27.5 per cent (25 of 91) without him.

While Bogdanovic stepped up, so did the man who was inserted in the starting lineup in place of Young.

In his first career playoff start in his 87th postseason contest, Williams made an immediate impact. The three-time Sixth Man of the Year had 13 points by half-time – the same number of points he had in the first three games of the East Finals – and finished with a game-high 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting.

In 35 minutes, the 16-year veteran had just one turnover while assisting on eight baskets, with three going to Capela as the two worked the pick-and-roll.

 

At 34 years old, Williams obviously is not as dynamic as the 22-year-old Young, whose averaging 29.8 points and 9.5 assists in the playoffs, but he proved to be plenty capable of leading Atlanta's offense, as he either scored or assisted on more than a third of the team's 43 made baskets.

Similarly to Young on the Hawks, it’s impossible for the Bucks to replace Antetokounmpo, who was averaging 29.2 points, 13.0 rebounds and 5.4 assists in the 14 games before his injury.

Good news for Milwaukee, however, is it has not had that big of a drop-off in production without him this postseason. The Bucks are averaging 108.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the court in the playoffs compared to 103.2 without him. By comparison, the Hawks are averaging 110.3 points per 100 possessions with Young on the court in the playoffs and 97.5 without him.

Bobby Portis and Brook Lopez are expected to handle more minutes with the backcourt tandem of Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday shouldering more of the offensive load, and all four have shot the ball a bit better this postseason when not on the court with the two-time league MVP. (Middleton 47.9 per cent without Antetokounmpo/41.1 per cent with him, Holiday 45.5 per cent without/40.4 per cent with, Lopez 58.8 per cent without/53.9 per cent with and Portis 54.3 per cent without/45.8 per cent with.)

Middleton, meanwhile, has also already proven he can pick up the scoring slack.

He had eight of Milwaukee's first 10 points after Antetokounmpo left on Tuesday, and has three games this postseason with 35 points or more. In Bucks franchise history, only one player has more 35-point games in a single postseason and that just happens to be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had six in 1973-74 and five in 1969-70.

Ultimately for Milwaukee, it could simply come down to Middleton's ability to make shots as the biggest difference between the team winning or losing. This postseason, the Bucks are 9-0 in games when Middleton shoots 40 per cent or better and 1-5 in games when he fails to reach that mark.

It is obviously not an ideal situation to be in, but Antetokounmpo and Young could still end up playing, though if they do suit up neither will likely be at full strength.

Both teams have also found some success navigating their way without their best players – the Bucks were 6-5 in the regular season without Antetokounmpo and the Hawks improved to 6-4 this season without Young on Tuesday.

Thursday's game is unlike any of those previous contests, however, with the winner moving one victory away from a berth in the NBA Finals.

A series that only appeared to be heading one way has suddenly been blown wide open again, with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Atlanta Hawks locked together at 2-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Having put paid to the Brooklyn Nets in the previous round via a thrilling Game 7, the much-fancied Bucks appeared to have overcome an early setback at home to take charge in the series.

Successive victories put them 2-1 ahead, but their playoff tale took an unexpected twist on Tuesday, quite literally in the case of Giannis Antetokounmpo. With his team trailing in the third quarter, the two-time MVP was hurt while trying to challenge a dunk.

The diagnosis of a hyperextended knee leaves his availability in doubt, not just for Game 5 on Thursday but also for the rest of this series and, potentially, beyond. The Phoenix Suns lie waiting in the NBA Finals.

Atlanta know all about dealing with the absence of an injured star: Trae Young – who is averaging 29.8 points and 9.5 assists in the postseason – has missed the previous two games with an ankle issue.

The point guard has been a key part of a roster that has surprised many in making it this far, knocking out the higher-seeded New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers along the way. Still, the experienced Lou Williams proved quite an able deputy for Young in Game 4 at home.

Now the teams switch back to Milwaukee amid an air of uncertainty. Where once the Bucks appeared to have seized control, now this series feels right back in the balance.

 

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Milwaukee Bucks – Jrue Holiday

With Giannis at best slowed by his knee issue, the other leading names for Milwaukee must step up. Khris Middleton has had a productive playoff campaign, but Holiday can do more. The point guard is averaging 16.5 points per outing and outside shooting has been an issue. His 28.7 per cent success rate from three-point range is well below his career mark of 34.6 per cent in the postseason.

Atlanta Hawks – Lou Williams

A three-time Sixth Man of the Year known for his scoring prowess off the bench, Williams had only reached double digits for points in two previous playoff outings during this postseason before managing 21 on Tuesday. That output came on seven-for-nine shooting, too. If Young is out, the Hawks will need the 34-year-old Williams to try and fill the void again.

KEY BATTLE – Survival of the fittest

While Antetokounmpo was officially determined as 'doubtful' by the Bucks on Wednesday, the Hawks listed both Young and center Clint Capela as questionable.

An arduous regular season played out amid the backdrop of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is taking a toll on the players. While the Suns now have a chance to rest up, their next opponents face the prospect of playing at least twice more before Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Neither Milwaukee nor Atlanta can afford any further injuries to key personnel at this stage.

HEAD TO HEAD

The two franchises have won 13 playoff games apiece in the rivalry. Both have recorded road victories in this series, with the Hawks needing at least one more triumph on their travels if they are to be crowned winners of the Eastern Conference.

Lou Williams says the Atlanta Hawks showed their strength in depth in the Game 4 rout of the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Hawks moved level at 2-2 in the Eastern Conference finals with a 110-88 win without Trae Young at State Farm Arena on Tuesday.

Young was ruled out after spraining his ankle when he stepped on a referee's ankle in Game 3.

Atlanta showed they can cope without 2020 All-Star Young on a painful evening for the Bucks, who lost Giannis Antetokounmpo when he suffered a hyperextended left knee.

Williams was charged with the task of replacing Young and top scored for the Hawks with 21 points and eight assists, while Bogdan Bogdanovic finished with 20 points.

 

Asked about being named as a starter, shooting guard Williams said: "It's not a big adjustment. You just know your minutes are going to go up, the time of the games is going to be different.

"Other than that, you just get ready to play a basketball game. We've got to be pros. I know it's cliche to hear, but one guy goes down, another guy got to step up."

Williams revealed there was no rousing speech from Hawks coach Nate McMillan when he was informed he would be starting.

"Honestly, I was on the training table, Nate walked up, said, 'Trae is going to be out, so I'm going to start you.' I said okay, and he walked off.

"That was the conversation. It's not like a 'Remember the Titans' thing that happens in the locker room. I promise you it don't. That was it. That was the extent of our conversation, and we got ready for the game."

McMillan is unsure if Young will return in Game 5 on Thursday.

"I don't know," McMillan said. "The report was just tonight he's out. He didn't feel comfortable enough to put pressure on his foot tonight. I'll get a report tomorrow, and I'm sure it'll be a game-time decision."

Rajon Rondo has joined the Los Angeles Clippers from the Atlanta Hawks, with Lou Williams moving in the other direction.

Along with acquiring former Sixth Man of the Year Williams, the Hawks will also gain two future second-round draft picks.

The deal means the 35-year-old Rondo makes a swift return to Los Angeles, where he won his second NBA championship with the Lakers last season.

He joined the Hawks on a two-year, $15million deal, but the lure of a reunion with Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, who built a close relationship with Rondo as an assistant at the Boston Celtics between 2011 and 2013, proved significant.

"He's fiery, that's what we need," Lue said after the Clippers beat the San Antonio Spurs 98-85 on Thursday, as quoted by ESPN.

"He's tough. He understands the game. And he respects people as a straight shooter and will tell them the truth.

"That was my biggest thing in Boston, was being honest with him and telling him the truth and keeping it real with him."

Lue said he was "not sure right now" whether Rondo would start or come off the bench.

Williams, 34, is certainly a masterful exponent when cast in the latter role, having won three of the past six Sixth Man of the Year awards, which recognises the best performing substitute in the league.

"He's going to be missed for everything he brought and not just basketball," Lue said of the point guard, who passed 15,000 career points during the Clippers' game with the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday.

"I just think he was a great person. That's what I love the most.

"We all knew he was a great basketball player, but just him as a human being and what he stood for and how he always boosted the morale of the team with everyone around him. That's what we are going to miss the most.''

Perhaps the biggest development at the NBA's trade deadline on Thursday saw a big player staying put as Kyle Lowry remained with the Toronto Raptors.

Veteran point guard Lowry, on an expiring contract, was seen as a potentially key pick-up for either the Philadelphia 76ers, the Los Angeles Lakers or the Miami Heat as they chase the title.

But the Raptors did not get a deal that appealed to them and will allow their greatest ever player to reach free agency.

There were significant moves elsewhere, though, as teams seized the last opportunity to agree trades.
 

ONE OUT IN TORONTO

Toronto, playing the season in Tampa, may have held on to Lowry, but they do not appear in contention this year at 18-26 and did deal Norman Powell.

The Portland Trail Blazers brought in the wing, one of the league's best three-point shooters in 2020-21, as Gary Trent Jr and Rodney Hood moved in the opposite direction.

Rather than one of the Raptors' shooters, the Heat will rely on Victor Oladipo, recruited from the Houston Rockets, over the coming months.

Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk and a draft swap was enough to do a deal with the Rockets.

Nemanja Bjelica also went to Miami from the Sacramento Kings for Maurice Harkless and Chris Silva.

And the Heat are said to be favourites for LaMarcus Aldridge after he was bought out by the San Antonio Spurs. Andre Drummond, another potential buyout, was not traded by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

THREE GO IN ORLANDO

As Toronto resisted the urge to take whatever they could get, the Orlando Magic did the opposite and cashed in.

All-Star Nikola Vucevic was a surprising early exit on Thursday as he went to the Chicago Bulls, along with Al-Farouq Aminu, in return for Otto Porter Jr, Wendell Carter Jr and two first-round picks.

Chicago added Daniel Theis from the Boston Celtics, but Lonzo Ball stayed put at the New Orleans Pelicans, while it was far from Orlando's only outgoing.

Evan Fournier headed to the Celtics, and the Denver Nuggets won the race for Aaron Gordon. His signing, along with Gary Clark, cost the Nuggets a first-round pick as well as Gary Harris and RJ Hampton.

Denver also added JaVale McGee in a deal with the Cavs.

RONDO RETURNS TO LA

Rajon Rondo, a team-mate of McGee's on the title-winning Lakers last season, has moved back to LA to join the Los Angeles Clippers.

Rondo played a big role in the playoffs for the Lakers and his signing cost the Clippers three-time Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, sent to the Atlanta Hawks.

Western Conference rivals the Dallas Mavericks got two shooters from the Pelicans in the form of JJ Redick and Nicolo Melli, parting with James Johnson, Wes Iwundu and a second-round pick.

The Sixers landed George Hill in a three-team trade involving the Oklahoma City Thunder and the New York Knicks, while the Charlotte Hornets brought in Brad Wanamaker.

Jordan Clarkson and Ben Simmons were drawn into a high-scoring shoot-out as the NBA-leading Utah Jazz powered past the Philadelphia 76ers 134-123 in a mouth-watering showdown.

In a battle pitting the Western Conference-leading Jazz against Eastern Conference pacesetters, the Jazz came out on top thanks to Clarkson's 40 points.

Utah's Clarkson nailed a stunning eight three-pointers as he became first player to come off the bench and score 40 points in less than 30 minutes since 1991.

In response, 76ers All-Star Simmons fired up for a career-high 42 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds, and Tobias Harris put up a 36-point, 10-rebound double-double, but the 76ers could not keep up with the Jazz.

Simmons opened with a career-best quarter of 19 points to give the 76ers a seven-point lead at the first buzzer before Utah took over and claimed an eighth straight win, and a 19th win in 20 games.

Missing Joel Embiid to a back injury, the 76ers' third straight loss opened the door for the Brooklyn Nets to close the gap in the east and they obliged, posting a franchise-record 25 three-pointers in a 132-121 win over the Sacramento Kings.

Kyrie Irving put up 40 points and former MVP James Harden added a triple-double (29 points, 14 assists and 13 rebounds) to lead the Nets to a third consecutive victory as the struggling Kings fell to a fourth straight defeat.

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