A series that only appeared to be heading one way has suddenly been blown wide open again, with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Atlanta Hawks locked together at 2-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Having put paid to the Brooklyn Nets in the previous round via a thrilling Game 7, the much-fancied Bucks appeared to have overcome an early setback at home to take charge in the series.
Successive victories put them 2-1 ahead, but their playoff tale took an unexpected twist on Tuesday, quite literally in the case of Giannis Antetokounmpo. With his team trailing in the third quarter, the two-time MVP was hurt while trying to challenge a dunk.
The diagnosis of a hyperextended knee leaves his availability in doubt, not just for Game 5 on Thursday but also for the rest of this series and, potentially, beyond. The Phoenix Suns lie waiting in the NBA Finals.
Atlanta know all about dealing with the absence of an injured star: Trae Young – who is averaging 29.8 points and 9.5 assists in the postseason – has missed the previous two games with an ankle issue.
The point guard has been a key part of a roster that has surprised many in making it this far, knocking out the higher-seeded New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers along the way. Still, the experienced Lou Williams proved quite an able deputy for Young in Game 4 at home.
Now the teams switch back to Milwaukee amid an air of uncertainty. Where once the Bucks appeared to have seized control, now this series feels right back in the balance.
Milwaukee Bucks – Jrue Holiday
With Giannis at best slowed by his knee issue, the other leading names for Milwaukee must step up. Khris Middleton has had a productive playoff campaign, but Holiday can do more. The point guard is averaging 16.5 points per outing and outside shooting has been an issue. His 28.7 per cent success rate from three-point range is well below his career mark of 34.6 per cent in the postseason.
Atlanta Hawks – Lou Williams
A three-time Sixth Man of the Year known for his scoring prowess off the bench, Williams had only reached double digits for points in two previous playoff outings during this postseason before managing 21 on Tuesday. That output came on seven-for-nine shooting, too. If Young is out, the Hawks will need the 34-year-old Williams to try and fill the void again.
KEY BATTLE – Survival of the fittest
While Antetokounmpo was officially determined as 'doubtful' by the Bucks on Wednesday, the Hawks listed both Young and center Clint Capela as questionable.
An arduous regular season played out amid the backdrop of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is taking a toll on the players. While the Suns now have a chance to rest up, their next opponents face the prospect of playing at least twice more before Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Neither Milwaukee nor Atlanta can afford any further injuries to key personnel at this stage.
HEAD TO HEAD
The two franchises have won 13 playoff games apiece in the rivalry. Both have recorded road victories in this series, with the Hawks needing at least one more triumph on their travels if they are to be crowned winners of the Eastern Conference.