ATLANTA — The Milwaukee Bucks had a path with fewer obstacles once the Atlanta Hawks declared point guard Trae Young out for Game 4.
Then, an avalanche of boulders tumbled into that path when Bucks All-NBA forward Giannis Antetokounmpo crumpled in a heap of limbs, screaming in pain and grabbing his hyperextended left knee.
The direction of a playoff series can change in the time it takes for Antetokounmpo to jump and defend a Clint Capela alley-oop dunk, get tangled on the way down and land awkwardly.
Atlanta, which controlled the game from start to finish, defeated Milwaukee 110-88 on Tuesday, evening the Eastern Conference finals at 2-2.
Antetokounmpo missed the final 19 minutes, but the Bucks were in trouble with him on the court before the injury. The Hawks led 51-38 at halftime and were up 62-52 when Antetokounmpo sustained his injury.
It was just a four-possession game, but the Bucks had not displayed any indication they were capable of a comeback. They had a bad start to the game, were limited by Atlanta’s defense and had trouble slowing the Hawks’ it-takes-a-village approach without Young.
“To come out and be flat like that and not give the energy, effort, to be able to win this game … it was a very winnable game even when we got down early,” Bucks forward P.J. Tucker said. “For us to not turn it on and be able to get over that hump and be able to give ourselves a chance to win this game is disappointing. It can’t happen.”
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer will address that during film sessions in Milwaukee on Wednesday.
The more pressing topic is Antetokounmpo’s availability for the remainder of the series and beyond the conference finals.
“Obviously Giannis is a big part of our soul and our fiber,” Budenholzer said.
Antetokounmpo, who sprained the same knee earlier this season and missed two games in late March, will have the knee scanned to determine the extent of the injury.
“We’ll see how he is tomorrow,” Budenholzer said.
It will be the longest wait-and-see the Bucks have encountered this season. Whether you root for the Bucks, the Hawks or have no rooting interest other than seeing good basketball, this is a rotten injury to a player who worked incredibly hard from his days as a kid in Athens, Greece to his back-to-back MVP seasons to an All-NBA player trying to reach his first NBA Finals.
The hope is that it is not a devastating season-ending injury.
This had been a brutal year for injuries, the playoffs included, with stars such Los Angeles Lakers’ Anthony Davis, Denver’s Jamal Murray, Utah’s Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell, Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving and James Harden, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, Boston’s Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker, Los Angeles Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard and Atlanta’s Young missing games.
After Antetokounmpo left the game, he headed to the locker room, came back to the bench and then headed back to the locker room.
“I don’t want to speak for him,” Budenholzer said. “I know just historically it’s impossible to keep him off the court. It’s impossible to keep him away from his teammates, keep him away from his team. So my guess is he probably wants to play and trying to play, and if not, let his teammates know that he’s there for them.”
Once play resumed, the Hawks extended the lead to 74-54.
“I’m sure there’s the human element where the concern, care, for him is real,” Budenholzer said. “But they are in the heat of the battle. They are playing. They are competing. They are trying to get stops, trying to get rebounds, trying to do things, trying to find a way to be there for him while he’s not able to be on the court, and I’m sure that’s what they will do.”
Still, the Bucks looked dazed.
“It’s not good losing anybody on your team,” Tucker said. “Losing a player stinks. But we didn’t come out with energy tonight. We just thought we was going to walk in and win the game. We didn’t do anything to show that we wanted to win this game tonight. We were flat, and our guy’s injury was just another piece of the puzzle to us losing.”
If the Bucks are without Antetokounmpo for any games, they coincidentally will have to draw inspiration from the Hawks, who beat the Bucks without Young.
“We’ll just take everything as it comes,” Budenholzer said. “We’ll evaluate it, and we’ve got a heck of a team, a heck of a roster. The guys will be ready to compete and play. That’s what it’s about.
“So we’ve got a Game 5. We’ll watch the film. We’ll prepare. We’ll get ready. The guys love competing. They love playing. That’s what it’s all about.”
Tucker was blunt.
“As players, you just look at each other and whoever we got out there, that’s who we’re going with and we’re going to go out and fight,” Tucker said. “Like to me, all that other stuff goes out the window and it comes down to being able to go out and give the effort every play, lay it on the line, and go out there and take it, because tonight, that’s what Atlanta did. They took it.”
Can the Bucks do the same?
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Giannis Antetokounmpo’s knee injury leaves Bucks in limbo