By: Robert Bishop
Back again, and in an instant on Tuesday night, the NBA playoffs changed. The presumed favorites to win it all, the Milwaukee Bucks, the lone team in the playoff picture to survive the postseason’s onslaught of injuries to its stars, saw its two-time MVP crumble to the ground with a knee injury. Giannis Antetokounmpo landed awkwardly around the midpoint of the third quarter, brutally hyperextending his knee. While the Bucks and basketball fans everywhere await the results of an MRI, it isn’t easy to foresee Antetokounmpo emerging unscathed. A best-case scenario likely puts him on the sidelines for at least a few games. A worst-case scenario probably ends his 2022 season.
As for the pivotal Game 4, even before Antetokounmpo’s injury, the Bucks were not winning the game. Atlanta, without Trae Young (ankle), was firmly in control thanks to a return to form from Bogdan Bogdanovic (20 points), strong play from Clint Capela (15 points on 6-of-7 shooting, and a team-high 21 points from Lou Williams, who made a start in Young’s absence. The Hawks remain undefeated in the playoffs in games that Bogdanovic scores at least 20 points. Cam Reddish also played well for Atlanta, playing in his second game since mid-February. Reddish scored 12 points with five boards while playing tough defense on Khris Middleton.
Speaking of Middleton, with Antetokounmpo likely out for at least tomorrow night’s Game 5, Milwaukee needs to get more out of Middleton. Consistency has been an issue for Middleton during the postseason, and for as great as he was while dropping 20 points in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s Game 3 win for the Bucks, he was equally unimpressive last night. Middleton has outings in which he looks every bit a capable go-to, number-one option for an offense. Now, Milwaukee needs him to deliver that kind of performance without Antetokounmpo as his running mate. Suddenly, this series has become a best of three, with Game 5 tipping off tomorrow night in Milwaukee.
Out West, the Clippers managed to stave off elimination with an impressive Game 5 win over the Suns on Monday night. Once again, Paul George played the role of hero for L.A. with 41 points (15-of-20 shooting), 13 rebounds, and six dimes. Somehow, his impact was far more significant than the box score indicates. He also operated as the team’s primary ball-handler and continued to be a difference-maker as a perimeter defender. George entered the playoffs with a reputation for shrinking in big moments. However, with Kawhi Leonard injured, George has stepped up and has proven his place among the NBA’s best individual talents. Win or lose, George has arguably been the MVP of the Conference Finals.
L.A. will need another superstar showing from George in tonight’s Game 6. The Clippers will likely again be without center Ivica Zubac (MCL sprain), forcing L.A. to counter Phoenix with a small-ball lineup that worked brilliantly in Game 5. With Zubac out, the Clippers only played a traditional center for around 10 minutes, getting a dominant turn from DeMarcus Cousins in limited run. By going small, the Clippers sacrificed rebound opportunities to Deandre Ayton, but L.A. compensated by tag-teaming boxouts and somehow ended up out-rebounding Phoenix in the game. The Suns have to adjust to counter. Ayton was the driving force for Phoenix’s Game 4 win. Phoenix will likely again have a size advantage. The Suns need to utilize it, or Phoenix runs the risk of a Game 7 on Friday night.