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You may say to yourself: “My God. What have I done???”
Until 2021, many an Atlanta Hawks fan will tell you how the scene inside then-Philips Arena, during the 2008 NBA Playoffs, was as loud as they had ever heard the place. Pent-up fan emotion, from having to endure a near-decade of laughable, madcap basketball teams, owners, coaches and players, the scramble to sneak in as an 8-seed, and the venturing into town of the top-seeded opponent from a legendary franchise that fashions itself as predestined for glory, bubbled up at The Highlight Factory to tear the roof off the sucker.
At long last, on Atlanta’s home floor, plenty of things seemed to finally be coming together. There was the rise of a coveted young playmaking guard, one for whom the spiritless ownership group nearly ate each other alive over acquiring, to become a steely All-Star reserve. There was a big man with a two-time NCAA championship pedigree, for whom the elevated stage didn’t seem too big.
There was the midseason upgrade at point guard, a ball caddy who already had his moments going toe-to-ugly-toe with Shaq and Kobe. There was the backup big from That Other Georgia, who wasn’t afraid to mix it up, or step on toes, if he felt it necessary to win.
There was a forward who, while not ordained to reach the professional heights of Chris Paul, was beginning to make a nice versatile scorer and defender out of himself. There was the local high school standout who took whatever was missing between his ears and made up for it with hops and heart, who brought highlights to the Factory, and whose multifaceted nightly box score made him the darling of counting-stat-heavy fantasy hoops leagues everywhere.
All of the aforementioned were in their 20s, toiling for coach Mike Woodson, with only the incoming point guard exceeding age 26.
Running the self-satisfied Celtics out of town on a rail, and not just once, in the NBA Playoffs’ opening round was more than enough to satisfy even the most obstinate local sports fan on the fence about supporting these Hawks. Set within the context of the sub-.500 team’s relative youth with ample room to grow, being already good enough to push a championship favorite to seven games, the future was bright. The present, that spring in 2008, was looking not-too-shabby, too.
Then, suddenly, that summer.
There was one other twenty-something in the Hawks’ mix, the team’s top sixth-man, who shared the first name of the multi-faceted forward and was drafted eleven picks before the latter by Atlanta in 2004. Josh Childress was another up-and-comer being groomed as an integral part of the Hawks’ slow rise to playoff prominence.
The lanky guard from Stanford was a restricted free agent and, as Hawks’ management was wont to do, Atlanta intended to let Chillz shop around for the best offer sheet he could find, allowing the Hawks brass time to pursue other interests while preparing for the clock to be set on matching the deal.
That non-negotiating approach often served to miff players, from The Other Josh to Jeff Teague, who thought they had invested enough into the club to deserve a little back-and-forth bargaining. What was worse for this Josh, Hawks Inc. seemed to be prioritizing The Other Josh’s pending offer sheet first, while the offers this Josh was receiving, certainly not NBA-starter-level appeals, were unappetizing.
Childress and his agent, though, had an ace up his sleeve that no one else saw coming. An alpha, if you will. “Greece!”, is the word that they heard.
I have long wondered what the news of Childress’ Gambit, to forgo NBA Free Agency altogether and instead land a lucrative deal with once-proud Greek powerhouse Olympiacos B.C., did for Nigerian parents’ impressionable kids running the streets of Sepolia in northwest Athens. Specifically, one who only began playing organized basketball the year before, at the ripe age of 12.
The Michael Jordan By Default of Greece was on his way there, and that had to be a double-take moment for the young, wispy Giannis Antetokounmpo and his siblings. Chillz was several stratospheres removed from His Airness, but you wouldn’t know it by Childress’ 3-year, $20 million tax-free deal, the fancy Volvo and the condo floor with a swimming pool that the club reserved for his personal use. (Did I mention, in Greece, there was a major post-Olympic austerity crisis underway?)
In making Childress the highest-paid hooper ever outside of North America, Olympiacos’ investment didn’t quite pay off the way the team had dreamed. Yes, they reached the Greek League title games in each of Childress’ first two seasons there. But they couldn’t get over the hump versus hated rival Panathinaikos in either year. Their rivals basically paid a lot less for ex- Memphis Grizzlie and American expatriate Mike Batiste, the Greek League MVP, to get the job done for seven years straight.
The larger aims for Olympiacos were EuroLeague championships. The Reds fell short after reaching the EuroLeague Final Four in Chillz’ first season, and the title round in his second. And the true team stars by that time were Lithuanian forward Linas Kleiza and point guard Milos Teodosic. The riches and perks delivered to an American, mediocre among his own NBA-level countrymen, to be the third-banana on a team not winning trophies, was not lost on a growing legion of angry Greeks. All that movie-star munificence, for The Ron Harper By Default of Greece, while everyone already there struggles to make ends meet? As sporting venues built for 2004 were already looking like ancient ruins? Opa!
That Olympiacos would go on to win those coveted Greek League and Euroleague titles in ensuing years without Josh, but with the leadership of guys named Acie Law and Pero, only underscored the peninsula's consternation over Childress' nationally lampooned European vacation. Not much gets past the radar that was Childress’ sizable ears. Before the third season could arrive, before his value in the NBA could spoil, Chillz opted out of his Olympiacos deal, returning to The States to take Robert Sarver’s taxable money.
“That man brought in Hedo Turkoglu and Josh Childress,” stated Amar’e Stoudemire, disparagingly, of his former paycheck signer at the Phoenix Suns. When Stoudemire’s free agency period arrived, Stoudemire told the All the Smoke Podcast that Sarver bragged that the NBA All-Star “could be replaced, tomorrow.” When he took a gander at these so-called replacements, “I said, ‘Man, you got to be kidding me,’” Amar’e recalled. “So, I end up going to New York.”
No high-level free agent, by that point in 2010, was banging on doors to grab much of Atlanta Spirit Group’s money, a stash that was dwindling by the year. Josh’s overseas exploits didn’t prove to be something Atlanta would sorely miss. But the ability to develop Childress further here, versus NBA competition, as part of the organic growth of an emerging young club, felt like an opportunity only the Hawks could creatively squander.
Around town, Childress’ departure was the Jenga moment for consumer confidence in Hawks stewardship. Subsequent to the dreamy postseason of 2008, the team itself scraped through the next two years of opening rounds, only to be waxed thoroughly, at home and away, in second rounds, by teams seen as authentic superstar-led contenders.
“The Hawks looked to have a nice thing going, for a minute there,” was the old saw. “And then Josh Childress ran off to Greece, so that’s the end of that. Atlanta Sports! smh.”
Whether it’s Childress bailing for the Aegean Sea, or Thabo and Pero celebrating the clinching of the top-seed with a fateful late night out on the town in NYC, you never know precisely when the Hawks’ Jenga moment arrives, and especially not how. What you come to understand, in hindsight, is the destabilizing event causes a step back that makes it hard for Atlanta’s carefully-crafted collectives to recover.
As Game 4 unfurls here at State Farm Arena in these Eastern Conference Playoffs (8:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast), Hawks fans can only hope that Trae Young’s step back, onto the clown shoe of a Game 3 referee along the sideline following a bad pass, won’t be just another Jenga block to toss into the fire of, “We had a good run going, BUT…” Atlanta Sports moments.
In this series with the Milwaukee Bucks, as other Hawks have struggled to be reliable offensive contributors, Young’s scoring proficiencies are essential for Atlanta to keep up with a phenom from Greece, that former 12-year-old from Sepolia who’s all grown up now.
Giannis was but 16 in 2011, the year after Childress concluded his Olympiacos run, when he was invited to play for a third-tier semi-pro basketball league, catching the eye of European and at least a couple American pro-league scouts alike. A full decade later, simply counting to ten remains a challenge at times for Antetokounmpo. But the two-time NBA MVP and 2020 DPOY has had little trouble maturing in many other aspects of the game.
Giannis has assumed the top-spot previously held by Atlanta’s Clint Capela (12.7 RPG) as this postseason’s rebounding leader (13.3 RPG). Blending his newfound strength with his eye-popping dexterity, the Greek Freak only needs teammates willing to compensate for his shortcomings at the three-point line (18.5 Playoff 3FG%) and at the charity stripe (55.1 Playoff FT%, with a few of the makes disallowable, but for the referees out here trippin’).
His 6.3 APG in this series now outpaces Young (team-high 6.0 APG; as per Locked On Bucks podcaster Frank Madden, held in consecutive games below 5 assists for the first time since March 2020), as does Khris Middleton’s (6.3 APG) and Jrue Holiday’s (9.7 APG). The ball movement for coach Mike Budenhozer’s club has become a point of exploitation, in contrast to a Hawks offense (107.8 O-Rating, lowest among the NBA Final Four) that gets stilted for long stretches and struggles to create when Young isn’t initiating plays.
Giannis’ dips, dunks, and dishes deep in the post are creating opportunities for his co-stars, who in turn create quality offensive chances for the rest of the roster. Whether it’s halfcourt heaves, awkward layup shots, or contested mid-rangers, Atlanta’s field goal makes in the two most recent games come with much higher degrees of difficulty.
Rebounding, after Capela and John Collins (10.3 series RPG, despite 4.0 personals/game), dime-dropping, after Trae, and defense, after Kevin Huerter (team-high 3 blocks in Sunday’s 113-102 loss, which only scratches the surface of how good he looked) and Bogdan Bogdanovic (2.3 SPG), are near-binary in numerical production among the remnants of the Hawks’ cast.
Hawks coach Nate McMillan could do well to consider going big earlier, introducing Danilo Gallinari as a quick sub for Bogi (listed as probable ahead of Game 4), and preserving the swingman’s weary knee for crucial defensive stops later in the contest. Bogdanovic played through Sunday’s entire final quarter but was a defensive non-factor as Middleton (20 4th-quarter points in Game 3, incl. 4-for-6 3FGs) ignited to help Milwaukee surge ahead for good.
It wasn’t the playoffs, but two months ago, a Hawks team without Young available caught Giannis and the Bucks slipping. One night after clobbering an injury-and-illness-riddled Sixers team at home, Milwaukee flew to Atlanta and was feeling good after entering the fourth quarter up by 8 points. As was the case on Sunday, Middleton heated up in the final frame as well, with 12 of his 23 points. But so did Atlanta’s Bogdanovic and Lou Williams from beyond the 3-point arc (combined 8-for-9 3FGs).
Meanwhile, Capela and fill-in starter Solomon Hill did just enough on that April evening to contain Antetokounmpo, while Buck teammates were of little use, at either end, on the back end of their back-to-back. In Game 3, the revelatory rookie Onyeka Okongwu showed he could serve Hill’s defensive role well, and maybe not just in a pinch.
Whether Young (6-for-14 3FGs in Game 3; listed as questionable, bruised foot) is fully functional, fully productive, fully available, or not, some of the Traemates have to catch fire from outside if Atlanta intends to fully recover in this series. The Otherhawks (4-for-19 3FGs in victorious Game 1, 7-for-31 in Game 2) were by default a series-best 9-for-23 on non-Trae treys in Game 3, skewed downward by Bogi’s 2-for-10 outing, and are 21-for-70 in this series overall. Having the proper personnel getting back on defense is essential, too, whenever the Bucks aren’t retrieving Atlanta’s jumpshots from the bottom of the net.
Hopefully, Young will be available to help the Hawks wage a fairer fight with Antetokounmpo and company tonight, earning Atlanta a guaranteed third home game in these conference finals while staving off the potential for elimination on Thursday in Wisconsin.
In so doing, the Hawks will also have staved off what looked to be, on Sunday night, another Jenga moment for Atlanta Sports history. Also, it is hoped, we’ll get through the summer offseason without any others unfolding.
John, if you get a call in a few weeks about a business opportunity from the Sultan of Brunei, please, just hang up the phone.
Let’s Go Hawks!
“Been There. Done That. Made The T-Shirt!”
The Hawks had the Bucks dead-to-rights. In their house, Atlanta’s Omni Coliseum.
The prize that awaited Atlanta was a date with destiny. The season before, a classic nip-and-tuck affair between Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird, at hallowed Boston Garden, had the Hawks coming up on the short end but earning the admiration of NBA fans everywhere. It was far too late to establish Atlanta, in their lovely red-and-yellow jerseys, as The Team of the 80’s. But who would take the lead and rule the roost in the final full season of the decade?
After edging the Hawks in 1988’s second-round series, the Celtics would relinquish the Eastern Conference crown for the first time in five years, to Isaiah Thomas and the Pistons. The next season, Boston lost Bird to a season-ending injury early, leaving the NBA East as wide open as it had been in recent memory. Who would challenge the new kings of the East, in their Auburn Hills palace?
Chicago, and Michael Jordan? As far as anyone could tell, the eventual 6th-seeded Bulls weren’t ready. Cleveland, and Brad Daugherty? A breakthrough season awaited, but the core of Lenny Wilkens’ 3-seed Cavs were so young. Patrick Ewing and the Knicks? They would win the Bird-less Atlantic Division. But they finished with the exact same 52-30 record as Nique and the Hawks, who improved on the prior year’s 50-32 mark. Entering the playoffs, on the heels of the Nique-Bird duel… why not Atlanta?
The window was open for the 4-seed Hawks, as the top-seeded Bad Boys, who easily swept the Celts, awaited their arrival. All Atlanta had to do was to Take Care of Business, on its homecourt, before a heavily partisan crowd. Their opponents? A Milwaukee club the Hawks played, and swept, in the regular season, winning all six times by an average of 11.0 points per game. The core of the same Bucks team that the Hawks bounced, 3 games to 2, out of the first round with a Game 5 home win the prior postseason.
Milwaukee began that season at a gaudy 40-19 but stumbled across the finish line with 14 losses in the final 23 games, including two versus the Hawks, one in Atlanta by 25 points. Defensive maven Paul Pressey, whose late-season injury greased the skid, would be unavailable for the entire first-round series. Seemingly on his last legs, point guard Sidney Moncrief was about ready to retire.
This wasn’t the Bucks’ series to win. Not until Atlanta made it that way.
Including the prior year’s first-round faceoff, the Hawks and Bucks always held serve at home in the playoffs. That was until Game 2 at the Omni, when the Hawks could not contain super-sixth-man Ricky Pierce and Milwaukee cruised to a 108-98 win, wasting Wilkins’ 32-point effort. With the 5-game series turned to the underdogs, the Bucks were in position, at the MECCA, to close out the series upset.
Wilkins’ contemporary, fellow All-Star and NBA All-3rd-Teamer Terry Cummings, hurt his ankle early in Game 4. Led by All-Stars Moses Malone and Dominique, plus John Battle off the bench, the Hawks capitalized and survived in OT on Milwaukee’s famous Robert Indiana floor. Cummings, like Pressey, was left with no choice but to watch from Wisconsin as the series shifted, for the last time, back to Georgia.
For the Bucks, with their seasons on the line, there would be no leading scorer, no top defender. Problem?
“The shot on Ehlo GOOD! BULLS WIN!” was ringing in everyone’s ears that day. Perhaps too loudly, at the Omni, for the Hawks to realize they were getting tuned up by not just Pierce, but Fred Roberts, Paul Mokeski and Jay Humphries. Bucks rookie behemoth Tito Horford didn’t have to lift a finger.
Thanks to buzzer-beaters sunk by Mokeski and Roberts, and a plethora of missed Hawk free throws, Atlanta could not sustain a lead in any quarter. The Omni crowd felt a wave of relief when the Hawks grabbed an 86-85 lead on the Cummings-less and Pressey-less visitors, with just under three minutes to go in the elimination game. But then Atlanta let the Bucks rattle off eight straight, a Doc Rivers three-pointer proved too little, too late, and all was lost. Including, that date with destiny in Detroit.
“This will be hard for us to get over,” Wilkins said after the Game 5 loss. He didn’t know the half of it. The next season, Rivers would be out due to injury for two months, Atlanta would sink to 41-41, 6th in the Central Division. Pete Babcock would arrive from Denver to help a busy Stan Kasten run things, and longtime coach Mike Fratello would resign after Atlanta narrowly missed the playoffs, finishing just behind Pierce’s Bucks, coach Lenny’s Cavs and Reggie Miller’s Pacers.
With Jordan answering the call in 1991 to overtake the Pistons, not Dominique in 1989, the window for the Hawks’ Finals hopes had closed. For at least a few more years.
Taking Care of home. It’s what likely would have made such a difference for Wilkins and his Hawks at the Omni, as their fates entered the 1990s. With his statue now perched at the entrance to State Farm Arena, and the balance of power in the NBA East once again up for grabs in the 2020s, Taking Care of Home is what would make the difference for a fresh, new group of Hawks to boldly go where no Atlanta team has gone before, the NBA Finals.
The common denominator? The visiting Milwaukee Bucks (8:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame Coverage on Bally Sports Southeast), in town for Games 3 and 4. No worries, Atlanta! Tito and Mokeski retired long ago.
Despite a washout loss in Game 2 of this series, the underdog Hawks upset Milwaukee in Game 1, granting themselves the opportunity once more to maintain homecourt advantage and close out coach Mike Budenholzer’s Bucks in no more than six games. But this is a far more challenging visitor than the ’89 Hawks faced, thanks to the whirling dervish that is Giannis Antetokounmpo around the paint.
Giannis was a rolling, spinning highlight reel in Milwaukee’s 125-91 win on Friday night, but he didn’t need to put up pinball-tilting figures (25 points, 3-for-4 FTs, 9 rebounds in 2.5 quarters). Teammates Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton did the dirty work in pestering Atlanta ace Trae Young (2021 Playoffs-high 3 assists, 9 TOs, 1-for-8 3FGs) while Holiday, Brook Lopez and Pat Connaughton (combined 9-for-12 3FGs) hit the key jumpers Atlanta (Traemates combined 8-for-28 3FGs) could not. Multiple Bucks chipping in to balloon the lead gave Giannis, his fellow starters and, by extension, Atlanta’s starters, a respite ahead of Game 3.
The lack of a secondary ballhandler production, either off the bench or sharing the floor with Young, is a challenge that coach Nate McMillan and the Hawks have to overcome in this three-day homestand. McMillan leaned on Young to sort out his Game 2 struggles to make better reads and connect with teammates for too long. Deploying Lou Williams for longer stretches, as a substitute for either Trae Young or Bogdan Bogdanovic, in combination with a back-in-action Cam Reddish, could make for better balance in the Hawks backcourt.
With Atlanta getting gashed on the boards in Milwaukee, sixth-man Danilo Gallinari has to expand his focus beyond his patented up-periscope jumpshots and help secure rebounds on defense, when John Collins and Clint Capela are occupied with Antetokounmpo and/or Lopez. Having to rely on Solomon Hill to lead the bench in minutes, as became the case once Atlanta waved the white flag in Game 2, is not a scenario conducive to securing homecourt victories.
Both Eastern Conference Finals entrants have reason to celebrate reaching this stage. Milwaukee tried tanking in Giannis’ rookie year, were rewarded with Jabari Parker and Thon Maker during the come up, but eventually realized acquiring a sound cast of savvy vets and scrappy prospects around their emerging supernova was the best approach. The Hawks weren’t huge winners in the NBA Draft Lotteries during their rebuilding phases, either. They aren’t tying their successes solely on the haul of Lottery picks, including Reddish and the injured De’Andre Hunter, to get them to this stage and pull them through. Not this year, anyway.
If Atlanta comes away from Games 3 and 4 with a decided advantage, it’s because veteran supporters, from LouWill to Gallo, stepped up their games when called upon. With better contributions from developed non-Lottery talent like John Collins and Kevin Huerter, the Hawks returning to more competitive rebounding, timely shooting, and proper closeouts on the Bucks’ shooters, will aid in Taking Care of Business before its home fans. This remains the Bucks' playoff series to win, only, if Atlanta allows it to be that way.
With a year-round focus on competitanking for future game-changing talent in the rear-view mirror, Hawks fans are no longer feeling a draft. Yet here, in the Hawks’ downtown arena, fans recognize there remains, unmistakably, an open window. Take Care, Atlanta!
Let’s Go Hawks!
“So, I was playing H-O-R-S-E with Bobby Portis, and…”
(tied up all day tomorrow... sorry for the super-early entry! Go Hawks! ~lw3)
Harry the Hawk could only look on, in horror.
Fooling around while entertaining fans at the Phoenix Suns Arena, Harry and a small collection of other mascots were simply killing time, schmoozing attendees and keeping the kids’ rapt attention on an otherwise dull All-Star Saturday afternoon.
The goal for the mascots, on this warm winter day in 2009, was simple. Take a bunch of halfcourt shots, and hope one or two go in. Always a good way to keep the fans lathered up.
Alas, Bango the Buck was out here Doin’ Too Much.
Harry, as we Atlanta Hawks fans know, has long been quite the daredevil. Diving off the corner stands into a hidden landing pad in the tunnel below. Demonstrating, with smug pride, his impeccable balance along a rail, then playing off the agony of his sore pellets after slipping and getting racked. Skidding down a flight of stairs in a fan section.
The difference, though, is every stunt Harry did for our guffaws was a bit. You knew, going in, whatever Atlanta’s mascot would do would be well planned, well-rehearsed, well-executed. Bango, Milwaukee’s mascot, just runs out on the floor and does… stuff, for doing stuff’s sake. It’s the latter’s seemingly reckless, pompous nature that made him the pride of Milwaukee sports and established him, with Harry, Rocky, and The Gorilla, among the best mascots the NBA has to offer.
On this afternoon, to Bango, the thought of dudes in anthropomorphic costumes hoisting shots from just beyond Trae Young range, as entertainment, wouldn’t do. Flexing his acrobatic skills and dexterity, Bango managed to climb the stanchion, standing behind the glass where the halfcourt heaves were directed. It’s nothing to Bango, something he does often to seize the crowd’s attention. Showing up The Association’s other gravity-bound mascots was an extra benefit in Bango’s mind. “Betcha can’t do it like me! Nope!”
But on this occasion, rather than sitting on the rim, presumably to allow the bit to keep going, or just staying behind the glass, Bango ventured to stand atop the rim, his big, furry hooves holding him up on 36 square inches of back iron as he encourages his fellow mascots to keep right on jacking up shots.
Even Harry the Hawk knew this was too much for a bird’s-eye view. Later that same year, Ultimate Rap League battle-rapper Conceited, while clutching a mystery beverage in a red SOLO cup, made a face that would become an indelible meme some seven years later. But at this time, that same, pursed-beak reaction shone right through Harry’s get-up. “Uh-oh. Not a good idea, Bango! But, okay, fine. You do you!”
Embodying the spirit of his franchise, Bobby the Bobcat (maybe that was his name, does it matter, really?), was oblivious. Before Bango could firmly establish his footing, Bobby fired off a shot that ricocheted off the deer’s, er, midsection and plopped into the basket below. Nothing but Nu, umm, Net! The Arizona crowd, just happy to enjoy the air conditioning and not stuck outside watching Joe Johnson playing H-O-R-S-E, goes halfway between mild to wild.
After taking in a stunning shot in more ways than one, Bango played it off as best he could, applauding the sunglass-clad bobcat for his success. But, then…
Bango slips. He attempts to gather himself by clutching the top of the backboard with his fuzzy hand. But that proved no match for Newtonian physics. THROUGH the rim goes the nearly seven-foot beast, antlers and all. Oh, Deer.
As TNT play-by-play man Kevin Harlan would say, “Up High! And Down Hard!”. It wouldn’t be a clean swish, though. Bango’s left hoof got caught up between the rim and the netting, leaving him momentarily dangling as clueless Bobby is still at the sidelines, high-fiving the fans to celebrate his own accomplishment.
Only The Raptor makes a half-hearted attempt at attending to Bango, once the ruminant twists free and finally makes his crash landing on one-and-a-half legs, writhing along the hardwood below with what would be diagnosed and reported as a torn ACL.
Nonetheless, it’s still a bit, and Harry understands mascots can’t scare the kids in the stands by showing legitimate concern for his misguided colleague’s well-being. The banged-up buck gets it, too. He hops up as best he can, waving to the crowd as he hobbles away, as The Show must go on. Likely muttering under their breaths, Harry and the Wizards’ Skyhawk-looking dude simply skip off into the tunnel. Deal with those torn ligaments in the back. It’s Red Panda Time!
Riding high and smelling themselves is about where the team that Bango reps found themselves, in the midst of the Eastern Conference Finals’ Game 1. The Milwaukee Bucks felt the momentum on their Fiserv Arena floor surging toward a double-digit lead over the happy-go-lucky Hawks. Losing focus on the things that mattered most, they started slipping: forgoing coach Mike Budenholzer’s ball-movement schemes to settle for ”You do you!” iso-ball, aimless passes, blown bunnies, and abject failures at boxing out to secure defensive rebounds in the clutch.
As Bango’s Bucks lick their wounds while pretending, for the sake of the stunned crowd, that There’s Nothing To See Here, the team Harry represents, the Atlanta Hawks, have a chance in Game 2 (8:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast) to saunter off Milwaukee’s floor and exit their arena for the final time in 2020-21.
The Hawks earned this opportunity when teammates hopped on the cape of Trae Young (Playoff career-high 48 Game 1 points, 11 assists, 7 rebounds). Then, they executed their fundamental roles so as not to spoil their magical carpet ride.
Does Atlanta deserve to be standing eye-to-eye with the Bucks? Bear in mind, Kevin Durant dropped 48 points for the higher-seeded Nets in an elimination game, a contest that Milwaukee won (thanks to KD’s toenails at the three-point line). It comes down to which star makes the best use of their teammates, and early on in this series, it’s Trae 1, two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo 0.
I’ve been talking until I’m Papa Smurf about how we’re waiting for Peak Hawks to take hold, how just a game or two of optimal two-way, 48-minute ball under coach Nate McMillan’s direction would make such a difference in the outcomes of Atlanta’s playoff series. Ultimately, the pressure is not on Atlanta, but on the so-called favored, higher-salaried teams to play Peak Favorites. When they lay so many flaws bare, they leave themselves susceptible to the underdogs that are just hanging around, staying within striking distance. Then, suddenly, the favorite looks every bit like the underdog.
For Milwaukee to avoid slipping through the hoop once again tonight, it means dropping drop coverage of Atlanta’s pick-and-roll, with defensive guards committing to going over on screens, and forwards protecting the rim when Giannis, P.J. Tucker, Bobby Portis and center Brook Lopez dare to step further out.
One of Atlanta’s advantages coming into the playoffs is they’ve played all season (and, frankly, some of the prior ones) missing an essential roster component and/or adjusting to accommodate a key player returning off injury management. Whereas the Hawks’ offense has hardly skipped a beat with the hampered Bogdan Bogdanovic, and without second-year pros De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish, teams like Philly seemed at a loss on how to adjust, without Danny Green as a corner shooting option and as an extra defender to hurl at Young.
A similar theme seems to be taking hold with Milwaukee. Fifth on the team in regular season minutes played, Donte DiVincenzo’s absence due to his season-ending ankle injury has been a struggle for Coach Bud to compensate.
Pat Connaughton, Bryn Forbes and veteran Jeff Teague (combined 1-for-7 Game 1 3FGs) struggled mightily to hang with Young, and the disparity widens when their offensive contributions are muted. Given Milwaukee’s limited in-season development, slim depth and short rotations, Budenholzer can’t turn to rookie Elijah Bryant or two-way guard Axel Toupane to step up on Donte’s behalf. Acquired for Torrey Craig from Phoenix at the trade deadline, Cash Considerations isn’t of much use, either.
That leaves Khris Middleton, also a dud in Game 1 (0-for-9 3FGs) to live up to his All-Star and Olympic-level expectations, and for Giannis to occasionally assist in meeting Young and Atlanta ballhandlers off the screens. To throw Milwaukee defenders further off-kilter, Young’s teammates (8 combined Game 1 assists; 8.7 APG vs. PHI; 10.8 vs. NYK) should be mindful that they can also pass the ball amongst each other, especially around the horn when Young draws the defense inward, and that not every receipt from Trae is definitively the best shot during a possession.
After a few well-drawn plays go right, and when the lead is working in their favor, Milwaukee might risk making the same fatal mistake conducted by recent Hawks opponents, of playing laissez-faire basketball, waiting for the visitors to fold and bow themselves out of the series. If they veer off-course from the gameplan and take too many unsound risks again, the Bucks will find themselves once more caught like a bunch of Bangos, staring catatonically into the hypnotizing, shimmering headlights of Trae Young. Poor Harry can hardly bear to watch the aftermath.
Let’s Go Hawks!
“I’m just asking Bob: how does a so-called rookie grow so much hair on his chest? Is it the beer?”
There are quite a few Milwaukeeans looking forward to giving your Atlanta Hawks the business. About 90 percent of those folks are above the age of 75.
Children, teenagers, and young adult sports fans were eager for something fresh in postwar America’s Dairyland. After winning the NFL Championship in 1944, their pigskin heroes, up the road in Green Bay, had fallen on rocky times. Single-wing fanatic Curly Lambeau had an ugly divorce with the Packers and eased on down the road to coach the reviled Chicago Cardinals.
Basketball, and not necessarily good basketball, meant the Badgers over in the state capitol of Madison, back in the day when you couldn’t sneak Victrola-sized recorders into locker rooms. Carnival barker Bill Veeck kept the Brewers interesting, but, with all due respect to our modern-day Stripers, there’s only so much AAA minor league baseball you can watch.
Having grown by over well over 20 percent in each decade up to 1930, the boomtown years in Milwaukee seemed to be drawing to a close by the time the 1950s arrived. Losing luster and populations to Midwestern rivals in Chicago, Minneapolis and St. Louis, the city’s boosters were eager to get civic projects cooking. It was essential to showcase Milwaukee as a bonafide major-league city.
Up would go the first American ballpark financed with public funds, Milwaukee County Stadium. As the stadium was being erected, in hopes of drawing a Major League Baseball team to town, the ribbon was cut for Milwaukee Arena. The latter was regarded as the first new sports venue engineered explicitly to accommodate the brave, new world of broadcast television.
That was more than enough to woo Ben Kerner and his NBA franchise out of its dusty fieldhouse in Moline, Illinois. With just a slight tweak of Kerner’s team’s name, the Milwaukee Hawks became the big, full-time pro team in town, tipping off in the spacious, 11,000-seat, taxpayer-paid Milwaukee Arena seventy years ago this November.
Veeck owned the St. Louis Browns, second fiddle to the beer-company Cardinals in MLB, and his attempt to bring the Browns to beer-town Milwaukee was blocked by American League owners, setting up the Browns to become birds of a whole different feather. Tired of losing fans to Ted Williams and the Red Sox, Construction magnate Lou Perini leaped at Veeck’s misfortune. His National League outfit, the Braves, arrived from Boston in 1953 to ensure the fancy new outdoor stadium wouldn’t sit empty in the summertime.
Treated much like Pabst “cheese product,” being a Hawks fan in the early 1950s was about enduring The Process. That is to say, the team sucked royally. 17-49 in their maiden season as the Milwaukee Hawks in 1951-52, 27-44 in 1952-53, 21-51 in 1953-54. Last-place in the Western Division, every year. It didn’t help that the rival Lakers, of nearby Minneapolis, were not merely the envy of the NBA West but the whole league, pulling off an unprecedented three-peat in those years.
But just as The Land of 1,000 Lakes would always have their Lakers, Wisconsinites knew they would always have their Hawks. Mel Hutchins entered the league as a top-2 draft pick and was a rebounding machine for Milwaukee. The team traded 1952’s top pick to Philadelphia, and they wound up with an All-Star returning from military duties in Don Sunderlage. Despite the losing, local fans were catching on to the grand plan.
“What’s the Secret?”, asked envious owners of the turnstile-struggling Knicks and Celtics, of Kerner’s ability to pack crowds in Milwaukee’s swanky new arena to watch a bottom-feeder team on the move. Crowds dwindled again, though, commensurate with the Hawks’ dovetailing record. But then, with the drafting of natural scorer Bob Pettit in 1954, the LSU star averaged over 20 points and 13 boards per game out of the box. With so many emerging stars in place, fans surely thought, the future of NBA basketball in Milwaukee was brightening.
Until that future was no more. It turned out this bottom-feeder Hawks team was on the move. Out of town. Already. Four years after moving in.
St. Louis was quite clear to Kerner, they weren’t building him and his cagers a new arena. But the Hawks owner, who never really filled out the one in Milwaukee, figured the Missouri hotbed along the powerful Mississippi River had more going for it than the slower-growing burg off Lake Michigan’s western shore.
Eero Saarinen’s Arch was a long way from being finished, but the city of St. Louis was not only seen by Kerner as a larger market, but the geographic center of the nation, and a shining gateway to the rising American West. The NBA owner was more than happy to move out of a state-of-the-art Milwaukee venue and shoehorn his squad into an aging Kiel Auditorium.
Bear in mind, at this time, that Rochester, New York was in the NBA’s Western Division. In an age before air travel, to far-flung places like California, could be viewed as part of a sustainable sports budget, Missouri was about as far west as major sports leagues were willing to stretch.
The sense permeated that if Milwaukeeans wanted to watch professional sports, hey, Chicago’s a short drive away. For pro hoops? Fort Wayne, and Minneapolis, make for pleasant road trips. Shoot, they’ve always trekked up Lake Michigan to watch football in chilly Green Bay.
The local resentment was high among the young fans who were just beginning to invest their time and energies into Milwaukee Hawks Basketball. “You know what?”, they thought. “Screw the Hawks. We’ll always have our Braves!”
The extra-unkind twist of the knife came when the Hawks pulled a Calgary Flames on Milwaukee fans. Just two seasons into their St. Louis tenure, Kerner’s Hawks finished with another losing record, but won a series of tiebreaker games with the hated Lakers and Fort Wayne Pistons for first place in a weakened NBA West Division. They swept Minneapolis to reach The Finals in 1957. Kerner got Beverley'd in the schnoz by Red Auerbach amid a heated dispute over the basket height, but the Hawks, behind Pettit, went nose-to-nose with the favored Celtics through seven games.
Hawks Fever would reach its fever pitch the very next season, when Pettit’s 50-burger sealed the deal and brought Kerner his first NBA Championship. But wait. This was not supposed to be St. Louis’ team to celebrate! That town never suffered through the lean years with the Hawks!
No matter, thought Milwaukee, because just a few months before, their new, darling Braves just beat the mighty New York Yankees, already giving this town its first World Series title. The Hawks arrived first, but the Braves were smoking hot from the time the once-dormant club arrived from Boston. They finished no worse than third in the NL with over 85 wins every season before breaking through in 1957, with the great Warren Spahn and reliever Ernie Johnson Recently Senior pitching, plus Eddie Mathews and an amazing kid named Henry Aaron knocking it out the park.
They almost caught the D@mn Yankees napping again in the World Series, after winning the NL pennant in 1958. By the close of the 1950s, Milwaukee was, officially, a tried-and-true world-class baseball town. Basketball what? Basketball who? This here is Braves Country, pal. Forever and ever, Amen.
From the time of the Hawks’ departure from Milwaukee, it would take 13 more years before the NBA would come back to the basketball arena that would later be known as the MECCA. In that time, the beloved Braves would be wooed out of town, in 1965, to the promise of an expanded media market in the Deep South. An increasingly barren pro-sports town was going to take anything it could nail down by that time. Bucks Country, you say? Fine. They’ll help pass the time. That is, whenever Vince Lombardi isn’t coaching on Sundays.
Just months after receiving their expansion franchise announcement, in 1968, Milwaukee was humored to find out St. Louis had lost the basketball team they poached, the Hawks, to Georgia, too. Fans endured a predictably terrible inaugural season by the Bucks. But it concluded with a nice win, of sorts.
The Bucks and their expansion cousins, the Suns, wound up in a coin flip for the top pick. Milwaukee won, and the prize was UCLA’s Lew Alcindor. To this very month, Phoenix would never win an NBA Championship. As for Milwaukee? Well, give them just a few minutes.
An NBA-record 29-game improvement came the next season, and by 1971, with Oscar Robertson in tow, Milwaukee posted a first-ever 20-game winning streak and paraded their first NBA Championship. There was regarded as the fastest run from expansion team to title in American sports, in the days before anyone had heard of Atlanta United, or soccer for that matter. Bud Selig had just brought MLB baseball back by snatching the Pilots from Seattle under the cover of night. But by this time, Milwaukee was Bucks Country. A re-enlivened basketball town, unlike stuffy old Chicago.
There is little visible record of the first three times the Atlanta Hawks and the Milwaukee Bucks faced off in the NBA Playoffs, the five-game sets of 1980s-era series that Glenn Rivers and Dominique Wilkins won once, and Sidney Moncrief and Paul Mokeski won twice. There is also little record of the only seven-game series between these clubs, in 2010, because I watched them all and made it by personal mission to burn all the tape.
But there has never been a bigger Hawks-Bucks series than the one that is set to unfold tonight, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals (8:30 PM, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast).
A former Milwaukee franchise that won it all once, in another town in 1958, and never made it back to the NBA Finals again. A current Milwaukee franchise that was gifted a young legend, hung onto to him long enough to win it all in 1971, returned to come up short in 1974, had the renamed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar demanding a trade (as reported at the time by a young sportscaster named Marv Albert) to a big city in 1975, was forced to hoof it to the Eastern Conference in 1980, and never made it back to the NBA Finals again. Only one can advance for a shot at ending their championship droughts.
If that is not enough drama for you, Jeff Teague is out here starving, sisters and brothers.
The last time your Hawks were in these Conference Finals, a half-dozen years ago, Teague averaged over 21 PPG and 4 APG for Atlanta. But his teammates were like deer-in-headlights against Matthew Dellavedova and the LeBronnaires of Cleveland.
Now, the 2015 All-Star has reunited with in Milwaukee with his old Hawks coach, Mike Budenholzer, after getting traded by Boston and mercifully waived by Orlando. If all goes well, Jeff will hardly have to lift a finger. The newly 33-year-old Teague gets to kick back and watch a 2013 All-Star, who’s two years his junior, go to work on the 2019 All-Star point guard who is now the toast of Atlanta.
It’s Jrue Holiday’s first playoff run since 2018 with the Pelicans, and the first two rounds have been less than stellar (39.8/24.6/69.6 FG/3FG/FT shooting splits) for him as a scorer. But as a release-valve (7.5 APG, 2.2 TOs/game in playoffs) for the hulking Giannis Antetokounmpo, and as a hounding defender on and off the ball, one could settle for a lot worse to try to impede Trae Young.
The Bucks don’t have a lot of head-to-head game tape on Young to work with from the regular season. Back spasms caused him to sit out of Milwaukee’s home win back in January, along with Clint Capela. Returning after missing two April games with a bruised calf, Young struggled to get going as The Fighting MLKs, absent John Collins and Danilo Gallinari and others, fell for the first time in Atlanta. The Hawks would make amends with a home win a week-and-a-half later, but Trae’s sprained ankle had him cheering from the sidelines.
Since then, Budenholzer’s trusty assistants have had plenty of other opponents’ playoff tapes to pore through. Young has soldiered through his first postseason while nursing a sore shoulder on his shooting arm. Regardless of whether he or his teammates are struggling from the field, they have done more than enough, through ball movement, rebounding and defense, to outlast and sacrifice two of the NBA’s blessed, highly favored, sacred cows.
Holiday will latch onto Trae, so long as he’s not needed to curtail other Atlanta shooters. If the situation changes, and if Young can swerve around the likes of Khris Middleton to serve up copious assists, this series won’t feel like much of a holiday for Milwaukee. Jrue is an All-Defensive First Teamer, but so was the wayward gentleman from Down Under who, with help from Trae and the Hawks, turned America’s sports programming into “B.S.”PN for the past two weeks.
The Bucks lack the array of backcourt defensive assignments that Young faced when the Philadelphia series began. It’s in part due to Coach Bud’s short rotations (sorry, Jeff), and to an untimely injury. Because of an ankle ligament tear suffered in the Bucks’ opening round, Donte DiVincenzo won’t be able to participate in the proceedings with the Hawks. It must be noted that DiVincenzo is here with the Bucks, rather than Sacramento, because Bogdan Bogdanovic is not.
Jon Horst and the Milwaukee front office jumped the gun in trying to secure another sweet-shooting guard before this season, perhaps to replace the soon-to-retire Kyle Korver. When talks with the Kangz fell through in November, Bogi entered restricted free agency, and he has since aided the Hawks’ rise to playoff prominence in the back half of this season. Meanwhile, the Bucks’ efforts to contact either him or his agent, prematurely, will dock them a second-round pick next year.
How much more Milwaukee will have to pay, in the near term, for failing to reel in Bogdanovic will depend on the health of his knee, and his ability to improve on a disappointing postseason to date. Still Atlanta’s third-leading scorer at 13.8 PPG, Bogi has shot just 30.4 percent on threes in his first NBA postseason (28.0 3FG% vs. PHI).
His ability to defend along the wing, while diminished, would be sorely missed if he cannot go for long stretches of this series, as the Hawks strive to keep Middleton, Bryn Forbes (40.0 Playoffs 3FG%) and Holiday in check. But there’s at least one Hawk who can, and occasionally has, stepped into the limelight and can help supplement, if not supplant, Bogi’s fullcourt production.
Kevin Huerter is in Atlanta, likely, because DiVincenzo is not. Milwaukee took the 2018 Final Four Most Outstanding Player in the fateful NBA Draft, two picks before Atlanta selected the relatively unheralded Huerter. The heralds have been coming, however, for “K’Von” following his breakout performance in the decisive Game 7 victory over Philadelphia, serving as perhaps Atlanta’s most clutch performer throughout that uncanny contest. Huerter doesn’t need a reason, at this stage, to make the Bucks pay for passing him up. But should he seek out a reason, there you go.
There was a time, just a few years ago, that Milwaukee really needed the services of Tony Snell. Middleton’s injured hamstring cost him over half of the 2016-17 season, pressing Snell into starting duties in his first season as a Buck. His efficiency as a shooter shined that season, and in the playoffs, and Horst’s first move as the new GM was to hand Snell a 4-year, $44 million deal to keep him around.
That contract would be largely panned as among the worst in franchise history, on a club that has penned some real doozies in the past decade alone (Miles Plumlee, what up?). That contract also expires this season, and while Atlanta hasn’t really needed Snell to this point, back in March when they did, his jumpshot served as the match that ignited the Hawks’ improbable turnaround. The mini-dimensional but efficient-shooting Snell would relish some chances to show Milwaukee, and perhaps some suitors this summer, why he is known, today, as Mister 50/50/100.
The year before DiVincenzo was picked, the Bucks had an array of power forwards to choose from at Draft time. Awash in Big Ten land, John Hammond and the Bucks’ brass went after Michigan standout D.J. Wilson, leaving T.J. Leaf for the rival Pacers. Down in ACC country, the Hawks were again two picks behind Milwaukee, and elected to go for John Collins. It’s looking like things worked out, in Atlanta’s case.
Try to imagine, when Mike Budenholzer bolted from the ATL for Milwaukee in 2018, that he might have inherited not only one of the most impregnable forces in pro sports, an imperfect hoopster yet a two-time MVP before age 26, but another talented if imperfect tag partner in Collins (15.1 PPG and 10.0 RPG vs. PHI, on downright Snellian 54.7/38.9/85.0 shooting splits), who has now held his own at playoff time against the likes of Julius Randle and Tobias Harris. A Gianny-Johnny pairing could have been mighty useful when the top-seeded Bucks faced a 5-seed, Bam Adebayo’s Miami, in the second round of 2020’s playoffs.
Instead of putting Collins to work during the course of his rookie deal at playoff time, in Milwaukee, Coach Bud had to put up with the dwindling utility of Wilson, who was DNP’d the entire postseason. Like Rakim, the Baptist this summer is about to be paid-in-full. But if he needs a reason to stick it to his rookie-year coach who abandoned him for supposedly greener pastures, jumping to a team that passed him up for Wilson, well…
Wilson was supposed to be in Horst’s ill-fated package, last autumn, to Sacramento for Bogdanovic. Instead, he and another D.J., Mr. Augustin, brought a P.J. into town at this year’s trade deadline, along with the lightly-used Rodions Kurucs.
Capela’s longtime teammate in the frontcourt, the 36-year-old P.J. Tucker (like Nate McMillan, the pride of Raleigh’s Enloe High School) exists primarily to be a thorn in the side of anyone he is assigned to guard. Daryl Morey’s team in 2020, as you’ll recall, ditched Capela to a rebuilding Atlanta team, because they thought the 6-foot-5 Tucker could adequately hold his own sliding over to Clint’s center spot on a title contender.
Capela has already made Morey, now In Philly, pay for that miscalculation. While Clint won’t be able to see Mike D’Antoni anytime soon, over the next week or so, he can serve up some helpful reminders of what his former Houston bosses missed in the Bubble. Fortunately for Tucker, who took over for Pat Connaughton in the starting lineup for the Brooklyn series, he won’t have to worry much about going head-to-head with Clint.
Getting passed up by Milwaukee in the Draft has often been a badge of honor. In Danilo Gallinari’s draft class of 2008, two picks after the Knicks’ selection, the Bucks went after Joe Alexander. The next big man taken two picks later, the New Jersey Nets’ Brook Lopez, has turned out quite alright. The man who wanted to retire with just one team, the star-studded club that now resides in Brooklyn, served a cold dish to them last weekend, putting his remodeled stretch-five game to good use under Coach Bud’s tutelage.
Lopez and Antetokounmpo will strive to draw Capela out of the paint. But a Hawks defense that has held playoff foes thus far to an NBA-low 48.3 2FG% will be able to deploy any of Collins, Onyeka Okongwu or Gallinari to meet the Bucks bigs away from the rim, contesting mid-range shots and threes while permitting Clint to be in good position to protect the rim and secure defensive rebounds. Having endured the tricks of Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid in recent rounds, and as familiar as anyone with the antics of Tucker, Capela is ideally suited for this matchup with the Bucks’ frontcourt.
Do you Hawks fans need some more red meat? How’s our old friend, Larry Donnell Drew, Sr., holding together this morning? You know, that “other” departing head coach that pulled the rug out from under Atlanta’s best-laid plans. Drew’s advice to his new employer forced the Hawks to come away with Dennis Schröder, in a familiar theme, two picks after our internally well-scouted international kid of mystery, Giannis, was snatched up by Milwaukee in 2013.
Rewarded only with the chance to coach up Antetokounmpo’s 15-win rookie year, Drew is now an assistant for the Clippers. Yes, the crew coached by former Hawk (and Buck) Ty Lue, who was handed the steamroller keys just in time for LeBron ahead of 2015’s playoff run through what was left of Atlanta. Let’s say L.A., now down 2-0 after last night’s absurd finish in Phoenix, finagles a way past the Suns out West. What Hawks fan wouldn’t want (figurative!) swings at that pinata? Still, considering how his Milwaukee tenure ended, I can’t imagine which team LD is rooting for to come out of the East.
The playoff campaign Atlanta has waged to date has been as much about the tried-by-fire steely maturation of coach McMillan’s Hawks as it has been about the myth-busting of certain opponents. Myth: Everyone get out of the way, because Julius Randle’s time is now. Myth: Ben Simmons doesn’t need to work on his shortcomings, or his attitude, to lead a team to championship glory.
Myth: if you need a coach to get you beyond regular season merits and into The Finals, don’t waste time with old-hat options like McMillan. You need a coach for the modern age, one with a Spurs pedigree, one like Budenholzer, to get you to the top of the NBA pyramid.
That last myth may prove true, for Phoenix. But in Milwaukee, absent a sound thumping of the Hawks and an advance into the championship round, the myth of Bud’s superiority as a whiteboard wizard has already teetered perilously close to busting in the past month. That pinata might only need four more whacks, and in a poetic twist, his former team holds the stick.
The fans in and around Milwaukee’s newest arena are far more cool-headed than anybody Trae and the Hawks players have tolerated over the past month-plus along the Eastern seaboard. It’s all about that Midwestern Nice mentality, you know. Yet, like one St. Louis beverage company’s frosty beverage tagline used to say, don’t let the smooth taste fool you.
To say little of one recent league MVP who has become not much more than a singles hitter as his team loses ground to the Cubs, and a reigning league MVP causing heartburn around the clock for his team, these are supremely anxious times for Wisconsin sports fans. They’re subsided only by the fact that Giannis chose not to dip his toe into the 2021 free agent waters, thereby ensuring the Bucks will get multiple cracks at title contention over the next few years, so long as he doesn’t pull a Kareem. But in the minds of many a fan, longtime vets along the Bucks’ roster, and Coach Bud himself, this crack might be the last, best one they’ll get.
Wisconsin’s current pro basketball team, collected to avenge the ouster by a five-seed from the South that featured a narrative-busting breakout NBA star in 2020, finds itself in a familiar position this season. For a few local Bucks fans that are longer in the tooth, the city that took two of the teams Milwaukee once beloved, and the name of the team that stands in the way of a shot at its first title in 50 years, ring a bit too loud of a bell.
By the end of either of the next couple of games, if a cane winds up tossed onto the Fiserv Forum floor, you’ll understand why.
Thank you, Donorsquawkers! Let’s Go Hawks!