ATLANTA — If the NBA has a bionic man, Giannis Antetokounmpo was the picture of it.
Limber, muscular, indestructible.
He was supposed to be the one constant in a season full of bad luck and instability, a symbol of the new era coming in while being established enough to be with the old guard, too.
“That’s every year, every year. You're hoping all your guys stay healthy,” Bucks forward Khris Middleton said. “We don’t know about Giannis [yet]. But I mean, you know it’s part of the game, a lot of it is being healthy, some of it is luck.”
It wasn’t the sole reason for the Bucks dropping Game 4 decisively, 110-88 at State Farm Arena. But perhaps it emboldened the Hawks, who picked themselves up off the mat again, going on a 10-0 run to finish the third up 20 after Antetokounmpo’s injury.
The Bucks could very well have been on their way to triggering ghosts of playoff past anyways, series where they had control only to play around a little too much. They hadn’t earned the benefit of the doubt, even though they seemed like they were on the road to creating new habits in this razzled playoff run.
Each win pulls you closer to the Finals, each loss another step toward elimination.
Now, they must wait on word from a likely MRI for their star — the star who made the difference in this series and could’ve very well been the best star remaining. And in the meantime, find themselves in a dogfight with a Hawks team that could be in the right place at the right time.
It’s not quite basketball karma, not even survival of the fittest — more about who doesn’t step on an ankle or land wrong. Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving landed on Antetokounmpo’s foot, injuring his ankle and affected the last series.
The Hawks suffered that same fate two nights ago, when Young awkwardly backed up into a referee’s foot, helping lead to a downhill loss and ginger steps thereafter.
He was a surprise scratch an hour before the game, even though his post-Game 3 limp should’ve been the greatest indication inactivity was likely. Antetokounmpo was in a different boat, although he was dealing with a sore calf before Game 3.
He couldn’t get his team to recognize the urgency and opportunity Young’s absence presented, and the Hawks took charge early. Hawks coach Nate McMillan threw guys out there who barely played meaningful roles in this run, like rookie Onyeka Okongwu and Cam Reddish, who hasn’t played in months due to injury.
Lou Williams made his first-ever start in the playoffs in Young’s place, hitting those off-balance shots to score 21 while adding eight assists. Bogdan Bogdanovic shook off an ugly Game 3 to hit six triples and Kevin Huerter had a stellar all-around game with 15 points, seven assists and six rebounds.
There was no deflation from the Hawks, who refused to accept their fate. Everyone knows the Bucks are the better team, the battle-tested, hard-luck squad with a more diverse attack. But the second quarter showed they had plenty left in this series, getting physical on defense and holding the Bucks to 16 points, taking a 13-point lead into halftime.
During normal playoff series, Game 4 is where the best team is identified, everyone knows and accepts it and the series takes its true shape.
But nothing about this season and these playoff months screams out normal.
It just screams and aches until the next injury report. Middleton saw it and heard Antetokounmpo’s wail of pain, and even though he had his own knee issues before making it to the NBA, Middleton readily admitted he couldn’t relate to what his teammate is feeling physically or emotionally.
“I’m sure there’s a human element where the care and concern for him is real,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.
As Antetokounmpo lay motionless, the Bucks went from a team needing to weather a storm to get to the NBA Finals, to one with real worry about its present and future. Then Antetokounmpo’s older brother, Thanasis, helped him off the floor and to the locker room, the MVP putting what weight he could onto his sibling.
“Giannis is there, a big part of our soul, our fiber,” Budenholzer said.
Budenholzer tried to put on a brave face in the postgame, but the hushed tones of even the veteran Bucks players told it all. This is unexpected, unchartered territory for all involved. Never had the Bucks been this close to the Finals, so confident they could walk down an opponent in due time — but now face the possibility of being without him.
Antetokounmpo proved his dominance in the moments before his injury: From rising above everyone for a crowd-hushing dunk to blocking Capela’s return attempt and then recovering a loose ball for another long-armed layup, the feeling was a 3-1 spread was inevitable.
The thought of him finishing with “just” 14 points and eight rebounds seemed unfathomable, even after multiple airballs from the free-throw line and an airball 3-pointer. He looked ready to take the form of someone who routinely scored 30 with 10 boards, as he’d done in seven of his last eight playoff games.
“We did have a good start to the third quarter,” Budenholzer said. “We felt like we could come out and just do a possession by possession, get some stops, you know, just manage the game.”
But emotionally they had little left after Antetokounmpo’s injury. He tried to emerge from the locker room to the bench, to at least provide moral support and motivation, but was ushered back shortly thereafter.
Over Budenholzer’s head inside of a room that was turned into a makeshift media room, red ribbons were wrapped around pipes, labeled “danger.”
Danger is all around, all the time. On the floor and off — even to the indestructible.
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