In the absence of Trae Young, Murray, and others, stepped up.
Dejounte Murray scored 25 points while rookie AJ Griffin enjoyed his best night as a professional scoring 24 points off the bench. For the Bucks — again without Khris Middleton — Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 25 points, Jrue Holiday added 16 to the Milwaukee cause.
In the first quarter the Bucks certainly played like a team who were undefeated in the season as they ran out to a 14 point lead in the first quarter largely thanks to their efforts from three-point distance, hitting 8-of-11 from three in the first to the Hawks’ 1-of-6 to outscore Atlanta 24-3 from downtown.
The Hawks’ second unit began to dig into the Milwaukee lead, led by AJ Griffin’s 10 second quarter points and entered the half trailing by just six points before the game shifted in the third quarter in Atlanta’s favor.
Behind a balanced scoring effort — led by Murray — and the Hawks getting to the free throw line 11-for-11 (having shot just 1-of-2 from the line in the first half) en route to 37 third quarter points, the hosts outscored the visitors 37-22 in the third quarter. The Bucks’ hot three-point shooting regressed in the second half, shooting 0-of-7 in the third and just 9-of-23 from the field in the third quarter, helping the Hawks take a nine point lead into the fourth quarter.
A quick 11-5 run by the Hawks to begin the fourth ran the lead to 15 points and the Bucks had no response and would not bring it below 15 again for the remainder of the game as the Hawks eased their way to a 20 point lead and turned this game into a blowout — a stark contrast to how the game started.
“Basketball is a game of runs,” said Murray of where the momentum shifted. “Like I kept telling the group, ‘They made their run, it was making a bunch of threes, it won’t be like that the whole night. We’ve got to continue to fight, fight and fight and it’ll go our way’.”
Contests between these two sides have been decided in the first quarter where the Bucks throw the first punch and the Hawks aren’t able to recover from that point on. Last night, the Hawks absorbed that blow, stabilised and found their footing.
“We’ve been talking about it all season long about bringing that attitude, that commitment, that urgency to the floor and sustaining that for 48 minutes,” said Hawks head coach Nate McMillan postgame. “That’s what you saw tonight. I thought early we were on our heels and we started to get aggressive and start to pressure the ball. The first half they were just shooting in our face, I think they hit 11 threes in the first half. We’re closing out in what I call a Kodak moment where you’re taking a picture and you don’t have your hands up and they lit us up. Made those adjustments; we got far more aggressive in the third and fourth quarter and was able beat the best team in the league. Offensively, I thought we had really good movement. We made them work, we were patient offensively and got the ball moving from side-to-side. We didn’t settle for the quick shots as we did in our first game against them.”
The Bucks shot just 2-of-17 from three in the second half after hitting 11 threes in the first half. When you look at these three-point attempts from the Bucks in the second half, the Hawks in reality got away with a lot of them — the Bucks missed quite a number of good three-point opportunities.
With the Bucks still holding a lead, De’Andre Hunter tries to go over on the screen to pursue Grayson Allen, who misses the open three:
Solid ball-denial initially from Aaron Holiday on his brother Jrue, but a good looking three from Allen on that possession.
Next, Brook Lopez fans to the corner, receives the ball and his corner three is missed:
A solid shot for Lopez, despite the oncoming John Collins.
In transition, Jrue Holiday pulls up for a wide open three but cannot convert:
Next, a Lopez screen takes Hunter out of the play defensively on Allen and a miscommunication leaves Allen wide open, and the Hawks catch a break as he cannot convert:
Allen this time drives down the middle, collapses the defense and finds Bobby Portis in the corner for an open corner three:
The Hawks did, to their credit, work harder to limit the Bucks from distance in the second half.
On this play, Aaron Holiday works really hard to contest this three from the much taller Lopez, playing much larger than his listed height of six foot:
His brother Justin, meanwhile, does a great job of hustling to the corner to contest this three-point attempt from Portis:
A combination of some good looks the Bucks just missed and the Hawks doing a better job guarding the three-point line helped contribute to the turnaround behind the arc.
The Hawks’ improved defense in the second half pleased McMillan as well as keeping the Bucks off the offensive glass in the second half.
“We talked about that as far as our guys guarding the ball and making it tough for the opponent,” said McMillan. “Everything must go through your chest. All we’re asking our guys to do is to stay in front of the ball. There was a couple of situations where we had to switch, I thought our guys did a good job of staying in front of the ball making the guys who were attacking the basket go to a second move, not allowing straight-line drives to the basket. When they had to go to their second move a lot of the time our defense was there to give help. They executed, on the defensive end of the floor we were connected, both ends of the floor. This team, Milwaukee can hurt you in so many ways. We knew that rebounding would be the key. They only had six offensive rebounds and two in the second half. We felt if we could rebound the ball that would be the difference in the game.”
The Bucks’ size has often given the Hawks trouble in the past and with Clint Capela often guarding Giannis in the recent past it frees up the likes of Lopez and Bobby Portis to crash the glass — even in the last contest between the two sides the Bucks scored 20 second chance points.
It’s an area the Bucks have a long track record against the Hawks; since the 2015-16 season the Bucks have never failed to not average double-digits in second chance points against the Hawks, so when Atlanta limited the Bucks to just seven second chance points last night it’s a big deal.
“I think we had to readjust and see where we could impact the game and that was rebounding,” said AJ Griffin. “I believe they had two (offensive) rebounds in the second half and being able to execute on that changes the whole game, changes the whole momentum. Credit to the coaches giving a game plan to go out and execute and we did our job.”
Something else that helped turn the game around in the second half was the Hawks creating turnovers and scoring off of them — eight steals for the Hawks in the second half contributing to 11 Milwaukee turnovers and 14 Atlanta points.
Here, Aaron’s pressure on Jrue Holiday forces the turnover, and Aaron Holiday leads the breakaway to find Collins who is fouled:
In the Bucks’ backcourt, Collins and Capela pester Giannis before Holiday steps up and deflects his pass and although Murray is credited with the steal the deflection from Holiday creates this steal:
McMillan praised Holiday postgame for his defense and how he set the tone for the Hawks on that end of the floor.
“He was a big key tonight,” said McMillan of Aaron Holiday. “He’s not going to stop Jrue, Jrue is just too good. But I thought he established our defense with his pressure, picking Jrue up all game long and not allowing him to get comfortable and making him work to score. That’s his big brother; no one knows him better than Aaron and Aaron accepted the challenge and I thought he was really solid for us throughout the game.”
Onyeka Okongwu also procured a steal in the second half but was everywhere in the second half, or so it felt.
A great switch/help from Okongwu on this play on the Giannis pick-and-roll helps break up the lob attempt and the Hawks come away with the ball:
Okongwu displays good anticipation and awareness as he gets an arm out to deflect the intended pass to Giannis on the baseline:
Okongwu produced some another highlight putback dunk off an offensive rebound over Antetokounmpo:
Okongwu almost repeated this not long after and while it may not have been a dunk, Okongwu skied over Antetokounmpo once again for a basket:
Rebounding wasn’t the only way Okongwu took it to Antetokounmpo, coming up with this strong play earlier in the half as he takes it to the chest of Antetokounmpo for the basket:
“He was great,” said McMillan when asked about Okongwu. “That entire second unit was really good, playing with a lot of energy, playing with urgency and playing with confidence. They pretty much had their first unit the way Bud rotates he gets that first unit back in the game at the start of the second and the fourth quarters. Our second unit was going against their starters for most of the time. I thought our guys stepped up to the challenge. Onyeka was really good, just trying to stay in front of Giannis and then offensively being aggressive, outworking the opponent on the boards. He had two, three really big offensive plays for us. Normally the officials, they referee aggressive play. If you’re aggressive from start to finish, a lot of times you can get away with some things and I thought our guys were aggressive from the very start.”
Jalen Johnson also enjoyed a strong game off the bench, scoring five points, securing seven rebounds as well as dishing two assists, coming up with two steals and blocking a shot in 22 minutes.
Johnson continues to show improvement out on the floor and his plays are becoming more and more impressive.
To start, he intercepts the pass for the steal, gets the ball to Murray before receiving it again as he follows the play and finishes with authority at the rim:
In the fourth quarter, he produced this great block on Antetokounmpo:
He also connected with Okongwu for his two assists, including this impressive pass that Okongwu almost wasn’t expecting:
And this assist to Okongwu who hits the jumpshot:
These flashes Johnson is showing are really encouraging and they’re beginning to come that little more often now.
Of course, the star of the show for the bench was Griffin, who ignited for 24 points on 10-of-15 shooting from the floor in 31 minutes of action.
Griffin has been known more so in his early NBA career as a shooter but last night showed that he is more than that; the majority of his work coming inside the arc:
What was impressive about Griffin’s work was the degree of difficulty he made some of these shots at.
As he receives the bounce-pass from Okongwu, Griffin attacks, adjusts to the contest of Serge Ibaka at the rim and finishes the play, plus the foul:
Griffin again gets a good head of steam as he comes off the screen and does a great job to adjust to finish with his left hand at the rim:
The Bucks defense was perhaps a bit static here but a good finish from Griffin nonetheless.
From the corner, Griffin receives the ball, gets inside and hits another shot inside as he is fouled:
This might be Griffin’s most impressive basket as he’s guarded by Wesley Matthews in the corner with the shotclock winding down, and after his dribble is killed Griffin steps through and finds enough space to get a shot away at the buzzer and connects:
This was another good play from Griffin as he comes off the off-ball screen, gets downhill and takes the ball through the chest of Portis to score at the rim:
Griffin looked very smooth and controlled offensively at times, making plays you wouldn’t expect for a rookie.
Again, the Hawks get Griffin coming off the curl before he receives the ball before he spins move and makes the turnaround shot:
For one of his two three-pointers on the game, Griffin takes the ball from the backcourt, comes off the screen and rises into a successful three:
Always good to see Griffin make threes off the dribble, and he looked good doing it in this instance.
Griffin got to see more time on the court than he perhaps normally would in the absence of Young, but made sure that he was ready to take advantage of the opportunity when it came.
“Just that mentality to stay ready, just got to give all the glory to God to be able to stay mentally strong through moments you know where your name could get called at any moment,” said Griffin. “Coach McMillan told me just before, ‘Be ready early,’ having that mindset to rise to the occasion and take the challenge. You know you’ve put in the work and just got to give credit to the coaches, the teammates here supporting me, being here, feeling like family, having that great support.”
You could sense the aggression from Griffin in these moves and that’s how the Hawks want him to continue to do.
“I feel that’s always a constant battle,” said Griffin when asked the dynamic of being aggressive versus letting the game come to him. “You’ve got to fight everyday to have that mindset of being aggressive. You’re either being aggressive or being passive — you’ve got to choose that every single day. Coach said after the game, ‘No stepping back, continue to stay aggressive, continue to have that mindset of coming in and you’ll make an impact right away.’”
McMillan was asked on a couple occasions about Griffin but each time he was, he didn’t address Griffin specifically or talk about his game but talked about his bench as a whole, who scored 59 bench points to Milwaukee’s 33.
“Played good basketball, played solid basketball on both ends of the floor,” said McMillan on the bench. “All those guys were working tonight, of course with Trae being out tonight we were shorthanded but they stepped up to the challenge. We had to play aggressive, solid basketball against the best team in the league so far this season and those guys came out and played aggressive basketball. We had to out-scrap this team, we can’t go toe-to-toe with a group like this, we have to be the aggressors and the team that outworks the opponent. I thought tonight we took that to the floor.”
It’s interesting that McMillan didn’t talk about Griffin individually after this game despite taking the time later in his post game press conference to talk about both Aaron Holiday and Onyeka Okongwu when asked about them individually.
Between the play of Okongwu, Johnson and Griffin, it was a good night for the Hawks’ younger core.
“I wish they could’ve played longer and I didn’t have to go back in,” smiled Murray when asked about the young guys. “They played well and I was just on the sideline smiling because I remember being in their shoes as a young guy — a rookie, first year in the league, second year in the league — and watching dudes like Manu, Tony and Kawhi and all those guys and just waiting on my turn, getting my turn and seeing them smile and pumping me up. It was only right. I’m happy for them and for me I just want them to continue to grow, don’t get comfortable, don’t get content.”
Murray himself led the team offensively with his 25 points on 11-of-24 shooting to go along with 11 assists, eight rebounds and another three steals. Murray was able to find success in the mid-range against Milwaukee’s drop coverage, an area of the court Murray excels in:
Murray looked great out on the floor and the team didn’t look as though they missed a beat without Young with the ball in his hands.
“Just stepping up and leading this young group,” said McMillan of Murray. “Without Trae, his minutes were going to change as far as how we rotated him and with the bench playing as well as they did we were able to give him a decent breather. As I told our guys, ‘Believe. Believe. We can do this, but there’s certain things we have to do out on that floor,’ and DJ led us, he led us from the very start being aggressive, creating offense. I thought he ran some really good plays, got all the guys involved and pretty much carried us and then the bench came in and continued to play solid basketball.”
The Hawks had three scorers off the bench in double-digits and had great contributions from not just Griffin and Okongwu but Justin Holiday as well, who hit four three-pointers as he scored 15 points in his best showing of the season, as well as a solid performance from John Collins (14 points).
“I think it shows our depth,” said Murray of the victory. “Just the way we have a deep group, having Trae out and still not Bogi having back and having dudes like the rooks stepping up, Jalen stepping up big. I think that’s what it was.”
A quality win for the Hawks last night against what was an undefeated Milwaukee team and with a tough part of the schedule coming up the Hawks need to take care of business at home and the fact they were able to win in the manner they did without Trae Young was impressive and they deserve credit for that.
The Hawks (7-3) are back in action on Wednesday against the impressive Utah Jazz (9-3) at State Farm Arena on the first night of a back-to-back for the Hawks (Atlanta will host the Sixers on Thursday night).
Should be fun.
Until next time…