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MILWAUKEE — If there was one play to summarize the futility of the Atlanta Hawks’ offense in Game 2 against the Milwaukee Bucks’ swarming defense on Friday, it was probably the first possession of the second half.
Trailing by 32 points at the half, the Hawks opened the third quarter unable to get a shot off, with the ball ending in Trae Young’s hands as the shot-clock buzzer sounded.
In Game 1, Young was majestic, scoring 48 points in an opening win. But with the Bucks revved up with a renewed focus on ball pressure Friday night, Young struggled in Game 2, turning it over nine times, including 8 in the first half, as the Bucks cruised to a 125-91 win, evening the series at 1-1.
“That’s all on me,” Young said. “I’ve got to be better at taking care of the ball. And do a better job of at least getting us a shot and not turning it over so much. And I’ve got to do better and I will be better next game.”
There was much discussion of the Bucks’ defensive scheme in Game 1, which saw them largely sticking to a drop coverage as Young got around screens and downhill for a series of floaters. But Young said there wasn’t much of an adjustment to how the Bucks guarded him — they just upped the intensity.
“They didn’t do nothing too much different,” he said. “They just played more aggressive. Scott [Foster] and them allowed more to go tonight. So just got to be better and be able to respond to that better.”
After drawing nine fouls in Game 1, Young drew only one in Game 2, the fewest for Young in any game this season, regular season or playoffs. The foul that Young drew came on the kind of play the competition committee will explore a rule change on, where he stopped short on a pull-up jumper and allowed a defender to run into his back.
“A lot of it is more about how the refs are going to call it that night,” Young said. “If they’re going to let them be aggressive, they’re going to let them be aggressive. If they’re not — I mean, they’re going to call it the way it’s supposed to be, then it would be different. But sometimes it’s called that way, and when they’re aggressive and they don’t call it, nights like tonight happen.”
Young finished with 15 points on 6-of-16 shooting, including 1-of-8 from 3-point range, with just three assists. Even two of the 3s Young would’ve hit turned into 2s because of a toe on the line.
“It was just one of those nights, and sometimes it happens like that,” Young said. “It sucks it happened tonight, but we’ve got to be able to bounce back.”
Jrue Holiday, who made the All-Defensive first team this season, guarded Young on 29 of 47 plays in the first half, with Young going 2-of-8 from the floor with six turnovers on those possessions. With both sitting out the fourth quarter, Young finished 3-of-11 with Holiday as his primary defender compared with 3-of-5 against every other Buck.
“I think I played smarter tonight. I played smarter than last game,” Holiday said. “There are times where I need to be physical with him and there are other times where I want him to think I am going to be physical and I might go under a screen. I think I was definitely smarter than how I played in the first game.”
Hawks coach Nate McMillan had a different take on the matchup.
“I didn’t think Jrue did anything other than stay focused on Trae, containing the ball, just being right there,” he said. “We’ve got to do a better job of screening when you have that type of pressure on the ball.”
The Bucks did play smaller more often than in Game 1. Forward Bobby Portis subbed in early to play minutes at center and blitzed pick-and-rolls with Young and stayed on him with switches. Portis played 18 minutes in Game 2, virtually all at center.
“They didn’t really change up too much of their defensive scheme,” Young said. “They were more in on the rollers so the perimeter was more open, and I’ve just got to make better reads. I take complete responsibility for whatever happened tonight. Taking care of the ball is something I’ve got to be better at, and I will be better at it. They really just upped their physicality, and we’ve got to do the same.”
Young has powered through a number of defensive looks and top-tier defenders this postseason, putting together outrageous numbers and clutch performances. Despite the bad night in Game 2, he said he’s confident he’ll sort out what the Bucks are throwing at him.
“I mean, every series has been physical,” he said. “The Knicks and the Sixers are two of the top three defenses in the league. The Sixers had three All-Defensive players on their team. I’ve seen physicality from defenders all playoffs, and it’s nothing new. I’ve just got to be able to respond and be better next game.”
The message in the Hawks’ locker room was to focus on the sum of the whole, not isolate on Game 2’s poor performance. The Hawks earned the desired split any road team looks for to open a series, taking an even series back to Atlanta for Game 3. Plus, it’s familiar territory for the Hawks, who were 1-1 and headed back home in the first two series they won this postseason.
“Any time you can go .500 on the road, that’s a good thing, especially in the playoffs,” McMillan said. “We had an opportunity to get two, we got one, so we’re happy with that. But there’s another level that we have to get to from where we are right now. We’re playing for a trip to the finals. They showed us that there’s another level that we have to get to in order to win games and advance.”
Added McMillan: “We know we’re better than this. The message to the team is we’ve got to be able to take that next step, raise our level of play. That sense of urgency that we’ve been talking about, that team showed us that they are a really good team, and there’s another level that we have to get to to have success against them.”
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