The Milwaukee Bucks find themselves weighing health versus history as they prepare to take on the host Atlanta Hawks in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals on Saturday night.
The third-seeded Bucks advanced to the doorstep of their first appearance in the NBA Finals since 1974 with a 123-112 home win over the fifth-seeded Hawks in Game 5 on Thursday.
Milwaukee did so without star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who sat out with a hyperextended left knee.
And they did so against a Hawks team missing its top player, Trae Young, who hasn’t played in either of the last two games because of a bone bruise in his right foot.
On a day off leading into the series’ return to Atlanta on Saturday, neither team made a definitive statement about its respective All-Star’s availability for Game 6. Likely, that call will be made after further examination Saturday and a pregame warmup.
Unlike their rivals with Young, the Bucks have the luxury of knowing that they wouldn’t be risking elimination by resting Antetokounmpo on Saturday. A Game 7, if necessary, is scheduled for Monday in Milwaukee.
Each team has won once without its leading scorer, with the Bucks riding the momentum of having done so more recently when four guys scored 22 or more points in Thursday’s win.
“Obviously, no one can replace Giannis,” observed Bucks center Brook Lopez, who paced the win with 33 points. “He’s a freaking two-time MVP and so much of what we do. No one person is going to replace that. It’s a matter of everyone stepping up.”
Lopez shot 14-for-18 in the win and got plenty of help. Khris Middleton went for 26 points, Jrue Holiday 25 and Bobby Portis, starting in Antetokounmpo’s place, 22.
They combined for all but 17 of the team’s points.
The Hawks also used balance in Young’s absence, but didn’t get the same production from their new Big Four. Bogdan Bogdanovic (28), John Collins (19), Danilo Gallinari (19) and Lou Williams (17), replacing Young in the starting lineup, combined for 83 points, but that was 23 fewer than the Milwaukee quartet.
Collins noted afterward it wasn’t a matter of how many, but rather when the Bucks did their scoring. Lopez, Middleton, Holiday and Portis did all the scoring in a 22-7 start from which the Hawks never recovered.
“We just got hit first,” Collins said. “It’s hard to play from behind against a playoff team … We have to come out and play better. I feel like we still could have won that game, but I think the biggest difference is letting them get out early, and it’s hard to play from there.”
History is very much against the Hawks at this point. Not only have they never made the NBA Finals since moving from St. Louis to Atlanta in 1968, they’ve also never won a potential elimination game in the Eastern finals over that span.
The last time the Hawks were in this situation, they couldn’t overcome the absence of All-Star Kyle Korver as the Cleveland Cavaliers completed a 4-0 sweep with a 30-point trouncing in Game 4 of 2015.
The team that has shot the best has won each of the first five games of the series. The Bucks have gone over 50 percent in three of the last four contests, but were held to 39.3 percent in a loss the last time the clubs met in Atlanta in Game 4.
–Field Level Media