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Just a few short hours later, however, things couldn’t have looked more different.
A stirring performance by the Hawks in a 110-88 victory in Young’s absence, coupled with the uncertainty surrounding the health of Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, has left this best-of-seven affair in a totally different light as it heads back to Milwaukee for Game 5 on Thursday night with the series tied at 2-2.
“Yeah, in a lot of [ways] … 2-2 is a lot different than 3-1,” Hawks guard Kevin Huerter said when asked if momentum had shifted after Atlanta’s victory here at State Farm Arena. “We know we’re guaranteed again to be playing at home in front of our own crowd, and yeah, definitely, 2-2 is a similar position we were in last series.
“[It’s] a long way to go, but it’s a lot better than being down 3-1.”
Hawks coach Nate McMillan said Young’s status remains up in the air for Game 5.
“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.”
Still, the Hawks find themselves in a far better position than virtually anyone expected before Tuesday night’s game began. They got there by sticking to McMillan’s game plan — namely that no one try to replace Young’s production on his own.
The Hawks took the strategy to heart. Four of the five starters scored in the opening three minutes of the game, forcing the Bucks to call a quick timeout and setting a tone Atlanta would carry throughout.
“I mean, it starts off, you start the game and everyone touches the ball,” Huerter said. “The ball moves side to side. You want everybody to find a rhythm. We don’t need people in transition, pulling up from the logo and offensively going one-on-one the way Trae can. It’s really not anybody [else’s] game on this team. So, we didn’t need people to play like that.
“That message was well-received. Like I said, you start the game off and all five guys score before they have to call a timeout. That really set the tone for the rest of the game, and it wasn’t something that we got away from.”
That turned out to be exactly what the Hawks needed. They lifted up Young as he watched from the sideline in a hoodie and put in a dominant performance that saw Atlanta never trail in Tuesday’s game.
Of course, it didn’t hurt having a veteran scorer in Lou Williams to insert into the lineup in Young’s place. Williams, who is famously even-keeled no matter the situation, said he had a straightforward conversation with McMillan before the game about Young’s absence.
“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 OK, and he walked off,” Williams said with a smile. “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.”
Williams was more than ready for his first conference finals start in his 87 career postseason games. He finished with 21 points on 7-for-9 shooting in 35 minutes, and his smooth, steady presence gave a young Hawks team precisely the kind of boost it needed sans Young.
“It’s not a big adjustment,” Williams said of going from the bench to the starting lineup. “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 cliché to hear, but one guy goes down, another guy got to step up.”
Just as important as Williams’ contributions, though, was the play of Bogdan Bogdanovic, who has been dealing with a knee issue of his own dating back to Atlanta’s victory in the Eastern Conference semifinals over the Philadelphia 76ers.
Bogdanovic had struggled mightily through the first three games of this series, scoring 20 points on a combined 7-for-28 shooting entering Game 4. He had looked far from the same player that had been such a key part of Atlanta’s midseason turnaround after being slotted into the starting backcourt next to Young.
But with Young sidelined in Game 4, that previous version of Bogdanovic returned. He had 20 points Tuesday night, including three 3-pointers to key a 15-0 run midway through the third quarter that ballooned Atlanta’s lead to 23 points.
“I live for these moments, man, and I really appreciate every minute on the floor,” Bogdanovic said. “I know it’s hard to get to this level of the basketball game. It’s hard to get to the playoffs. It’s hard to get to the second round. It’s hard to get to the Finals. At this point, everything is hard. And it’s mental. All of it is mental, and you have to fight through it, and it’s another level of experience. I just live for that, man. I enjoy every single moment, and I know — I don’t think about my game so much, just finding a way that we can win.
“I know my game will come eventually. As long as we play good as a team … we have a lot of talent that any other guy can step up every other night.”
The third-quarter run sparked by Bogdanovic came soon after Antetokounmpo left the game with a hyperextended left knee. The Hawks led by 10 when Antetokounmpo was injured, before blowing the game open.
Still, to say the game turned on Antetokounmpo’s injury would be unfair to the way the Hawks played from the jump.
Atlanta immediately vaulted to a 10-2 lead in the opening three minutes of the game and carried that momentum forward. After the Bucks had been able to walk to the rim over and over again through the first three games of the series, averaging more than 60 points in the paint per game — and over 20 points more than the Hawks per game — Atlanta actually outscored Milwaukee 46-44 in the paint in Game 4, including limiting the Bucks to just 14 such points in the first half.
“I thought our pressure was much better,” McMillan said in explaining the difference for his team defensively. “We have to make these guys uncomfortable. This time of the year, you can’t allow good players to get rhythm, and I thought our pressure was much better tonight, really the first time in this series we’ve played that type of defense, and we’re capable of doing it.
“I thought tonight we established our defense, and our offense seemed to find its rhythm.”
What was a celebratory mood inside State Farm Arena in the final minutes with the Hawks leading by 20-plus points — and the crowd at times chanting “Hawks in six!” — was dimmed when starting center Clint Capela was inadvertently hit in the face by an elbow from Bucks reserve guard Sam Merrill as both went after a loose ball.
Capela stayed down on the court for some time, before eventually being helped to the locker room with a towel over his right eye. Capela was later examined by the team’s ophthalmologist, and he will be given a follow-up examination on Wednesday.
Sources told ESPN, however, there is optimism about Capela’s status for Game 5 and that the expectation is he has avoided any sort of significant injury.