After the Atlanta Hawks ruled out point guard Trae Young for Game 4, the Milwaukee Bucks’ path became clearer. When Bucks All-NBA forward Giannis Antetokounmpo crumpled in a heap of limbs, screaming in pain and grabbing his hyperextended left knee, an avalanche of boulders tumbled into that path.
In the time it takes Antetokounmpo to jump and defend a Clint Capela alley-oop dunk, get tangled on the way down, and land awkwardly, the course of a playoff series can change. Atlanta won 110-88 over Milwaukee on Tuesday, tying the Eastern Conference finals at 2-2.
Giannis appears to have a leg injury. Antetokounmpo sat out the final 19 minutes, but the Bucks were already in trouble with him on the court. The Hawks led 51-38 at halftime and 62-52 when Antetokounmpo was injured.
It was only a four-possession game, but the Bucks had shown no signs of being capable of a comeback. They got off to a bad start, were limited by Atlanta’s defense, and struggled to slow the Hawks’ it-takes-a-village approach without Young.
“To come out flat like that and not give the energy, effort, to be able to win this game… even when we got down early,” Bucks forward P.J. Tucker said. “It’s disappointing that we couldn’t turn it on and get over that hump to give ourselves a chance to win this game. It’s not going to happen.”
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer will address this during Wednesday’s film sessions in Milwaukee. The more pressing issue is Antetokounmpo’s availability for the rest of the series and after the conference finals.
It will be the Bucks’ longest wait-and-see game of the season. Whether you root for the Bucks, the Hawks, or have no rooting interest other than watching good basketball, this is a terrible injury to a player who has worked extremely hard from his days as a kid in Athens, Greece to his back-to-back MVP seasons to an All-NBA player attempting to reach his first NBA Finals.
Antetokounmpo had become too much of a force for Atlanta, particularly in Milwaukee’s victories in Games 2 and 3. He limited his 3-point attempts and drove to the rim with ferocity in the first three games of the series, averaging 30.7 points, 10.7 rebounds, 6.3 assists, and two steals while shooting 59.4 percent from the field. The hope is that it is not a devastating season-ending injury.
Stars such as Anthony Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers, Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets, Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz, Kyrie Irving and James Harden of the Brooklyn Nets, Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker of the Boston Celtics, Kawhi Leonard of the Los Angeles Clippers, and Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks all missed games this season.
After exiting the game, Antetokounmpo went to the locker room, returned to the bench, and then went back to the locker room. When play resumed, the Hawks had increased their lead to 74-54.
“I’m sure there’s a human element there where the concern, care, and concern for him is genuine,” Budenholzer said. “They are, however, in the thick of the fight. They’re having fun. They are in competition. They’re trying to get stops, rebounds, do things, and find a way to be there for him while he’s not on the court, and I’m sure they will.”
“It’s never good to lose anyone on your team,” Tucker said. “It’s a bummer to lose a player. But we didn’t have much energy tonight. We just assumed we’d walk in and win the game. We did nothing to demonstrate that we wanted to win this game tonight. We were deflated, and our guy’s injury was just another piece of the puzzle that led to our defeat.”
If the Bucks are unable to play without Antetokounmpo, they will have to draw inspiration from the Hawks, who defeated the Bucks without Young.