“I had a lot of time and was kind of tired a little bit,” Young said with a smile after scoring a postseason career-high 48 points in Atlanta’s 116-113 road win at Milwaukee in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday. “I got a little second to get a deep breath and knock it down.”
Thanks to Young and his scoring exploits, time is suddenly a luxury the Bucks can no longer afford. Milwaukee entered the series as a heavy favorite, riding high after an impressive performance in a seven-game marathon against Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets. But with one shaky outing, the Bucks have ceded home-court advantage and now must decide how quickly and how dramatically to adjust their defensive approach to slow down Atlanta’s rising young star.
Milwaukee appeared to treat Game 1 as a feel-out game, and perhaps it was lulled into a false sense of security by its interior dominance early. After their series against the Nets devolved into an exhausting slugfest, the Bucks spent much of the first half coasting to the basket, racking up 32 points in the paint in the game’s first 15 minutes.
In turn, Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer eased up on the minutes for his stars and extended his rotation to include Portis and Jeff Teague, who were both shelved in the second round. Those decisions reflected a level of comfort that didn’t exist against Brooklyn, and Milwaukee lacked the same frantic energy in Game 1 that it had summoned to survive Durant.
Young made the Bucks pay dearly for their stretches of complacency, registering the third-highest postseason scoring total in franchise history, trailing only Hall of Famers Bob Pettit and Dominique Wilkins. In the first half, he punished Milwaukee for utilizing big lineups by tossing in floaters over center Brook Lopez. When the Bucks went to a smaller lineup with Giannis Antetokounmpo at center, Young, who added 11 assists and seven rebounds, shifted into a more distribution-minded mode to set up big men Clint Capela and John Collins.
“You have to put [Young] with the top guys in the league,” Hawks Coach Nate McMillan said. “He really doesn’t have a weakness on the offensive end of the floor. He can shoot from deep. He stretches the floor. He has a midrange game. He will pass the ball, find his teammates. He shoots free throws well.
“He’s seen all the defenses that teams have played against him. He’s seen a box-and-one. He’s seen bigger defenders. He’s seen physical defenders. He has seen teams trap and try to get the ball out of his hands. The good players go through this, and they learn from it, but they don’t allow the different coverages to take them out of their game.”
Milwaukee struggled to contain Brooklyn guard Kyrie Irving before he sprained his ankle, and Young’s quickness and ballhandling ability presented similar challenges. Holiday, Milwaukee’s premier backcourt defender, often lost track of Young, and Milwaukee’s big men looked hesitant and slow when they were forced to defend him on switches.
Atlanta’s offense came most easily when Lopez was dropping deep toward the basket. That allowed Young to get up a head of steam before he lofted uncontested and high-arcing shots from inside the paint. Milwaukee’s willingness to open with that strategy was probably influenced by an April 15 win over Atlanta, in which Young shot just 3 for 14 on two-point attempts.
But Wednesday was a very different story. Young made 13 of his 21 two-point attempts and earned 12 trips to the free throw line while regularly penetrating Milwaukee’s defense. In the 20 minutes that Lopez was on the court, the Bucks were outscored by 14 points. In the 28 minutes that he was off the court, the Bucks outscored the Hawks by 11. It didn’t help matters that Lopez had a quiet night on the offensive end, too, finishing with just seven points and two rebounds.
Milwaukee fared somewhat better with its smaller lineups down the stretch, encouraging Young to settle for deep three-pointers and holding him to 1-for-7 shooting in the fourth quarter. Antetokounmpo’s length on the perimeter appeared to bother Young, causing him to pass out of the matchup on several occasions.
Even so, there was a whack-a-mole quality to the Bucks’ defense. In the fourth quarter, Young earned 10 free throw attempts while Capela and Collins combined for four offensive rebounds to punish Milwaukee’s undersized front line. Atlanta — and Young in particular — seemed well prepared for the Bucks’ downsizing.
“Just figuring out where the matchup is for us that we can go to,” Young said, when asked how he countered the Bucks’ strategy shift. “Whether it’s [Danilo Gallinari] in the post or somebody out on the perimeter. When they go to a small lineup, we have to figure out how to attack them. Our bigs got to crash the glass a lot more when they go small.”
Budenholzer has historically been resistant to making major adjustments early in a series, and his first decision will be whether to stick with Lopez as a starter or to shift to a more versatile look.
From there, the Bucks will need to weigh whether they believe that Young is capable of maintaining his high efficiency and shouldering such a heavy usage for the entire series. If so, they will need to up their pressure on him. Although guard Bogdan Bogdanovic is limited by a knee injury, Atlanta’s best lineups include capable scorers at nearly every position, forcing defenses to pick their poison.
“We talked about changing up the looks,” Budenholzer said. “I think we probably got to do more. … We’re going to have to get a lot better going into Game 2, and I think throwing Young different looks is going to be important.”
Milwaukee can take heart in strong performances from Antetokounmpo, who finished with a team-high 34 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists, and Holiday, who posted 33 points and 10 assists and presented major problems for Atlanta’s backcourt defenders. In the game’s closing minutes, the Bucks generated several high-percentage dunks and layups for Antetokounmpo before coming up empty from the perimeter three times in the final minute.
Indeed, the ease with which the Bucks scored inside for much of the game might convince their coaching staff to keep their defensive adjustments to a minimum, instead hoping that better intensity will produce a Game 2 victory.
Remember, Milwaukee largely resisted double-teaming or trapping Durant in the second round, even though he nearly won the series with a pair of classic scoring performances. Perhaps the Bucks will dare Young to beat them, just like they dared Durant. If so, the 22-year-old guard, playing in his first postseason, sounded ready.
“I’m all for the biggest moments,” Young said, without a trace of awe or surprise at his own splendid opener.