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.

We could soon know who will be fighting it out for the NBA title, with both Conference Finals in danger of being decided emphatically.

The Phoenix Suns have surged into a 3-1 lead over the Los Angeles Clippers, while title favourites the Milwaukee Bucks have recovered from a Game 1 loss to the Atlanta Hawks to lead 2-1.

The coming week will decide who will face off for the Larry O'Brien Trophy and, in this edition of Heat Check, Stats Perform looks at which players are on form heading into the decisive matchups, as well as those who need to step up.


RUNNING HOT

Reggie Jackson - Los Angeles Clippers

With Kawhi Leonard showing no sign of making a return from a knee injury that has kept him out for the past six games, the Clippers need players to improve if they are to save their season.

Los Angeles face an elimination game on Monday in the Western Conference Finals, but they can take heart from what Jackson has done in Leonard's absence.

Jackson has scored at least 20 points in five of the last six games, including a 27-point performance in the Game 7 win over the Utah Jazz.

He averaged 20.67 points per game last week, exactly 10 points more than he did in the regular season. The Clippers must have another big effort from him in Game 5.

Deandre Ayton - Phoenix Suns

Ayton enjoyed one of the defining moments of these playoffs with his game-winning alley-oop in Game 2 of the Conference Finals. He is blossoming into the star center the Suns thought they were getting when Phoenix selected him first overall in 2018.

His dramatic final basket in the second game capped a superb performance in which he produced 24 points and 14 rebounds.

Not content with just one double-double, Ayton produced another in Game 4, putting up 19 points and tallying 22 rebounds.

Over the course of the three matchups last week, Ayton recorded 20.33 points and 15 rebounds per game, both significant increases on his averages of 14.15 points and 10.54 rebounds in the regular season. No wonder Ayton has received such effusive praise from team-mate Chris Paul.

Trae Young - Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks' hopes of upsetting the odds once more against the Bucks hang in the balance with star point guard Trae Young having been diagnosed with a bone bruise, making him questionable for Game 4.

If he is ruled out, it will be a great shame as Young has played phenomenally in the playoffs, including making a superb start to the Eastern Conference Finals.

He began the series last week by scoring an astonishing 48 points as the Hawks took Game 1 in Milwaukee.

Young was held to 15 in Game 2 but bounced back with 35 in the third game, going six for 14 from three-point range, taking his points per game for the week to 32.67, way up on his already impressive average of 25.3 from the regular season.

GOING COLD...

Bogdan Bogdanovic - Atlanta Hawks

Young's presence is even more important given one of Atlanta's secondary scoring threats is having to fight through a knee injury.

Bogdanovic has continued to battle knee soreness and the impact on his play has been obvious.

He averaged over 16 points a game in the regular season, but has put up only 6.67 so far in this series.

The Hawks may need him to produce more amid the pain to improve their odds of stunning the Bucks.

Clint Capela - Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks also haven't quite got the desired production they desire from center Capela.

That may be a slightly unfair statement given that Capela has tallied double-digit rebounds in two of the three games in the series, including a double-double in the Hawks' opening win.

Yet in terms of putting up points, his output has disappointed in comparison with his regular-season numbers. Tallies of 12, two and eight give him a per-game average of 7.33 that is in stark contrast to the 15.17 he delivered in helping the Hawks clinch the fifth seed in the East.

In a series with a Bucks team whose leading lights are firing on all cylinders, that isn't going to cut it.

Paul George - Los Angeles Clippers

With the Clippers competing in a place in their first Finals without Leonard, it is a bad time for George to go cold from deep.

Having made 3.17 threes per game in the regular season, George was off the mark from beyond the arc in three games against the Suns last week.

He made an average of 1.67 threes per game, hitting on one triple in two contests, including the Game 4 loss that has put the Clippers on the brink of elimination.

George simply must rediscover his aim to keep their season alive.

At the onset of the season, the Atlanta Hawks were a trendy pick to be a team that could fight their way into the playoffs and be tough to eliminate in a postseason series. 

Sure, they finished mere percentage points ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the worst record in the Eastern Conference last season, but with the returning core of All-Star Trae Young, John Collins and De'Andre Hunter, plus the offseason additions of Clint Capela, Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Rajon Rondo, there was plenty of reason to believe the Hawks could capture their first playoff berth since 2017 in a top-heavy yet mostly mediocre Eastern Conference.

Injuries to Hunter, Gallinari and Bogdanovic, however, stunted Atlanta's growth, and the team sputtered over the season's first two months. And with another blown fourth-quarter lead in a loss to Southeast Division rivals the Miami Heat on February 28, the Hawks' record dropped to 14-20 as they slid into 11th place in the East, prompting team president Travis Schlenk to fire coach Lloyd Pierce less than halfway into his third season at the helm.

Schlenk believed the season could be salvaged and needed a new voice, promoting assistant Nate McMillan to interim coach.

The Hawks have responded.

They've since compiled a 13-5 record – behind only the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers among East clubs – to move into a virtual tie for the Southeast lead with the Charlotte Hornets, and into fifth place in the conference. They have also navigated around a recent injury to Collins, going 4-1 since he sprained his left ankle.

There are several reasons for Atlanta's surge, but it's no coincidence the turnaround under McMillan has coincided with the return of Bogdanovic.

Lured away from the Sacramento Kings on a four-year, $72million deal, Bogdanovic looked like a bust early, averaging 9.9 points on 38.5 per cent shooting and 36.2 per cent on three-point attempts in his first nine games, before missing the next 25 through the end of February with a sprained knee.

After working out the rust over a few games upon returning, Bogdanovic has found his shot and is thriving.

Since March 24, his 66.4 eFG (effective field goal) percentage ranks third in the NBA among the 99 players with a minimum of 75 attempts, while his 53.3 per cent shooting from beyond the arc ranks fifth among the 92 shooters with at least 35 three-point tries.

He was inserted into the starting lineup on March 26, and with Bogdanovic and Young together on the court, the Hawks have been lethal, averaging 117.1 points per 100 possessions, 49.4 per cent shooting and 45.7 per cent on three-pointers. Without them, they are averaging 102.7 points per 100 possessions, 41.7 per cent on field goals and 33.3 per cent on threes.

Bogdanovic has been especially deadly from the wing since McMillan tabbed him as a starter. Since March 26, his 21 three-pointers from the wing is just one fewer than Miami's Duncan Robinson for the league lead, while his 46.7 per cent shooting from the wing ranks fourth among the 47 players with a minimum of 25 attempts.

Young's scoring has dropped since Bogdanovic cracked the starting five (20.9 ppg since March 26 after previously averaging 25.8 ppg), but he's been distributing the ball to his teammates a little more (10.4 assists per game since March 26 after previously averaging 9.4 apg).

Since March 26, Young has assisted on 20 made baskets by Bogdanovic – the most by a guard to a single teammate – and 16 by Capela.

The Young-to-Capela show is nothing new, however, as Young has fed Capela on 99 made baskets on the season – fourth-most by any player to a teammate. Atop that list is Young’s 121 assists to Collins, and the Hawks are hopeful the two can add to this number as early as next week with Collins back practising.

Capela has had more opportunities inside with Collins sidelined, but really, he's been a beast in the paint all season.

The league's top offensive rebounder at 4.8 per game, Capela is third in the NBA in second-chance scoring at 4.6 points per game (minimum 20 games played).

His production in the interior has also increased with Bogdanovic starting, as he has been averaging 6.7 dunks and layups per game since March 26 – second in the league behind Zion Williamson's average of 10.6 per game. Prior to March 26, Capela averaged 5.5 dunks and layups per game.

Like Bogdanovic, Gallinari also got off to a sluggish start to the season and also dealt with an ailment, missing 12 games with multiple foot injuries. But also, similarly to Bogdanovic, he's found his stroke.

After averaging 11.2 points on 38.6 per cent shooting from the floor and 37.8 per cent from beyond the arc in his first 23 games, Gallinari is averaging 16.3 points on 47.6 per cent shooting – including 43.5 per cent on threes in his last 15. He's been one of the league's best at connecting on three-pointers from the wing since March 1, draining 47.1 per cent – the fourth-highest rate in the league among the 77 players with 50 or more attempts.

Gallinari hasn't been the only contributor off the bench for the Hawks over the last week.

At the trade deadline, the Hawks shipped Rondo to the Los Angeles Clippers for 16-year veteran Lou Williams to provide another scorer off the bench. The three-time Sixth Man of the Year Award winner is averaging 13.2 points and 3.4 assists in four games, rejuvenating the reserves since making his Hawks debut on April 1.

With Williams on board, Atlanta's bench ranks fifth in scoring (43.6 ppg), ninth in shooting (46.8 per cent) and second in three-point shooting (53.8 per cent) since the start of April. Prior to April, the bench ranked 27th in scoring (31.7 ppg), 30th in shooting (40.3 per cent) and 16th in three-point shooting (35.9 per cent).

While the Hawks have become healthier – despite the recent injury to Collins – and are getting more production from their bench, they are also showing a proficiency at closing out games. Instead of wilting late, they are now flourishing.

The loss to the Heat on February 28 marked the 11th setback of the season for Atlanta in a game in which they led in the fourth quarter, and only league-worst Minnesota had more through the end of February with 12. Since the beginning of March, however, the Hawks are 13-2 when holding a fourth-quarter lead, and only the Denver Nuggets (15), Brooklyn Nets (14) and Phoenix Suns (14) have more such victories.

The Hawks' recent fourth-quarter figures are startling. Their PPG average has been 27.7 since March 1 after being 27.1 previously, representing a small improvement. Yet in that same period their opponents have averaged just 24.3 fourth-quarter points compared to 29.0 in the first 34 games of the season, Atlanta's three-point percentage has switched from 34.8 per cent before March to 41.9 per cent during the games since, and their PPG differential has switched up from being minus 1.9 prior to the upturn to plus 3.4 in their subsequent outings.

That means in terms of fourth-quarter progression they have gone from being 15th in PPG in games before March to eighth since, from 29th to second in opposition PPG, from 19th to second in three-point percentage, and from 29th to first place in PPG/difference.

Atlanta have played their way into a playoff position, and now the trick is staying there. One advantage the Hawks have going for them, though, is they have a relatively easy path the rest of the way.

Through the end of February when the team fired Pierce, Atlanta had the eighth-toughest strength of schedule (.512 opponents' winning percentage). The Hawks then made their push since the beginning of March with a schedule that was the eighth easiest (.478), and now they have the sixth-easiest schedule through the rest of the season (.480).

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