The stage is set for the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals, with an NBA Finals trip on the line. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks prevailed in seven games over the Brooklyn Nets, surviving an overtime thriller in Game 7 despite Kevin Durant’s best attempts to keep Brooklyn’s season alive. Trae Young and a feisty Atlanta Hawks also dispatched their opponent in seven games, defeating Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and the Philadelphia 76ers.

How They Got Here

3 observations: Trae Young lights up Sixers, leads Hawks to Game 1 win
Photo: Matt Slocum/AP

After topping the regular season Eastern Conference standings for the past two seasons, the Bucks finished third in the East behind the Nets and 76ers this season with a 46-26 record. Milwaukee easily dispatched the defending Eastern Conference postseason champions, sweeping the Miami Heat in four games, before outdueling the Nets in the second round, in perhaps the most exciting series of the 2021 NBA playoffs so far.

Milwaukee reached the Conference Finals in 2019, but fell to Kawhi Leonard and the eventual NBA Champions, the Toronto Raptors, in six games. Last season, the Bucks fell to the Heat in five games in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. While these were easily Milwaukee’s deepest playoff runs since the 2000-2001 NBA season, there was still an overwhelming sense of disappointment: as the team with the best regular season record and a back-to-back regular season MVP (Antetokounmpo) failed to reach the NBA Finals both seasons.

This season, led by Antetokounmpo, and supplemented by the likes of Khris Middleton, P.J. Tucker, Jrue Holiday, and Brook Lopez, Milwaukee led the NBA in scoring with an eye-popping 120.1 points per game. Yes, offense is up league-wide, but the Bucks still led the league by a 1.5-point margin over the next best team, the Nets.

With a solid defense, allowing 114.2 points per game (higher than some teams due to the Bucks fast pace of play,) Milwaukee also held the best point differential in the Eastern Conference at +5.9.

While Trae Young has continued to take the league by storm, not many people predicted the Hawks would make it this far in the postseason. With a 41-31 record in the regular season, Atlanta opened up the postseason as the fifth seed against the fourth-seeded New York Knicks. While Julius Randle and the Knicks took one game from the Hawks in their return to the postseason, Atlanta quickly prevailed in five games. This was Atlanta’s first postseason series win since 2016, and the Hawks first postseason appearance in the Trae Young era.

Taking on the Philadelphia 76ers in the following round, the Hawks would have had every excuse in the world if they lost that series. Philadelphia has much more postseason experience, and “The Process” has continued even though the 76ers have still failed to make an NBA Finals run. The 76ers earned the top seed in the East this season, with a 49-23 record and a dominant 29-7 home record, the second-best mark in the NBA behind the Utah Jazz.

In other words, after winning a toss-up series against the Knicks, the Hawks understandably entered the Conference Semi-Finals as a significant underdog. And yet, Atlanta fought every night, eventually building a 3-2 lead over the East’s best regular season team. Philadelphia forced a Game 7, which came down to the fourth quarter. Despite an uncharacteristically putrid shooting night from Young, the Hawks won 103-96 to set up a date with Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Preview

If you want to save some reading, just refer to my tweet above for the big picture: the Milwaukee Bucks are the better team, have homecourt advantage, and have one of the best two-way players in the world with Giannis Antetokounmpo. If I had to bet on this series, or if my life depended on making the correct pick, I would have to go with the Bucks: it’s simply the safer option.

But as we’ve seen time and time again in the NBA playoffs, the better team doesn’t always win. The Utah Jazz finished the season with the best record in the NBA, but couldn’t overcome the Los Angeles Clippers even with the gift of Kawhi Leonard’s absence at the tail end of the series. As mentioned, the Bucks themselves couldn’t break through to the NBA Finals in the past two seasons, despite entering those postseasons as favorites. Also already discussed, the Hawks just overcame the top-seeded 76ers, who were favored by all measures to win that series.

The outcome of this series will mean one of two things: Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks finally get a chance to play in the NBA Finals, or the Hawks emerge victorious from an underdog position once again.

The Bucks open as -500 favorites to win the Eastern Conference Finals. With homecourt advantage, Milwaukee can advance to the NBA Finals simply by winning all their home games, and if they steal some games on the road, the series could be over even quicker.

Milwaukee outdueled the Nets in the last round, and the good news for the Bucks defense is the fact Atlanta doesn’t have a player in the same caliber as Kevin Durant. Trae Young is an incredible offensive player, but game-planning against Durant is a whole different ball game.

It could also be said Milwaukee just beat a better team than Atlanta did. Yes, the 76ers did have a superior regular season record compared to the Nets, but Brooklyn arguably would have been able to make up the one-game difference in the standings if their stars were healthy and playing together for a larger portion of the regular season.

But while the Nets opened the Conference Semi-Finals as perhaps the most dangerous team in the league, less talent was available in the tail end of the series. Most notably, James Harden was basically playing on one leg, and Kyrie Irving missed the final games of the series. With the Bucks winning Game 7 by the narrowest of margins, would a healthy Harden and Irving have swung the series in the the other direction?

It’s too late to play what if’s though: the Bucks are here. Now that we’ve established that Milwaukee is rightfully the favorite, how can the Hawks potentially pull off an upset?

In one word: offense. The Hawks averaged 113.7 points per game during the regular season, tied for 11th in the league. As mentioned earlier, the Bucks led the league as the only team to average over 120 points per game. But if Atlanta hopes to upset the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, I think it’s more likely they outscore Milwaukee than shut them down. Obviously they will have to do a little bit of both, but outscoring the Bucks is the quickest path to victory for Atlanta.

Against the 76ers, the Hawks put up as many as 128 points, and only failed to score 100 points once in the seven-game series. By comparison, the Bucks scored a measly 86 points twice in their series against Brooklyn (although one instance was a win,) and topped out at 108 points in games decided in regulation. The Bucks defense held Brooklyn under 100 points three times in the series, an impressive feat, but also allowed 125 and 114 point performances from the Nets.

Prediction

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Atlanta Hawks
Photo: Jason Getz/USA Today Sports

When I began writing this article, I intended to pick the Atlanta Hawks to pull off another upset and advance to the NBA Finals. But as has happened before, through the process of my own writing and research, I’ve changed my own mind over the course of the past 1200 words.

The Hawks have a chance, don’t get me wrong, but everything would have to fall right offensively, and Atlanta would also need to step up their defensive efforts drastically. Neither team is a one-man show, but the Bucks have more talent and depth than the Hawks do. Even if Antetokounmpo has an off night, the bench and starting five are deep enough to salvage the game. Now, the Hawks did win Game 7 against the 76ers despite a poor shooting night from Young, but that’s not a formula Atlanta can rely on over a seven-game series.

I predict the Hawks will steal either Game 1 or 2, as well as split their home games in Games 3 and 4. This gives the series a 2-2 split heading back to Milwaukee, but the Bucks will ultimately hold down homecourt in Game 5 and then dispatch the Hawks in Game 6 to avoid a winner-take-all Game 7.

Young will play well over most of the series, with perhaps one off night, and the series loss will hardly be blamed on him. Atlanta will show up for all six games, and avoid major blowouts or embarrassment.

On the flip side, after a stellar series against the Nets, and even with Atlanta’s potential problems defending him, Antetokounmpo won’t have the flashiest series. Instead, the Bucks depth will shine, with three different players leading the team in scoring over the course of the series.

It would be great to see either team win, and breath some fresh air into the NBA Finals. Personally, I’m rooting for the Hawks, but if the Bucks win (as I predict,) it will be a much deserved NBA Finals berth for Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.

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