Giannis Antetokounmpo is doubtful for Game 5 and his status is unclear for the remainder of the East finals. Kevin Pelton maps out the road ahead for Milwaukee.

Can the Milwaukee Bucks win Thursday’s pivotal Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Atlanta Hawks if two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is unavailable?
Although ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Adrian Wojnarowski reported Wednesday that Giannis avoided structural damage to his left knee during a scary fall in the third quarter of the Bucks’ Game 4 loss on Tuesday, he’s still listed as doubtful to play in Game 5.
How might Milwaukee replace Antetokounmpo if he misses the game? And what does it mean for the Bucks’ chances of maintaining home-court advantage in the series? Let’s take a look.
How the Bucks could look without Giannis
Milwaukee went 6-5 in the regular season without Giannis, but that stat comes with an asterisk: Three of the five losses came when the Bucks rested the majority of their regular starters, meaning they went 6-2 in games with a relatively full lineup save for Antetokounmpo. With the exception of a 15-point loss to the Dallas Mavericks, those games were against lottery-bound teams, though Milwaukee did manage to blow out lesser competition — the Bucks had a plus-12 PPG differential in full-strength games without Giannis.
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The first challenge for Milwaukee head coach Mike Budenholzer will be finding enough bodies to fill out a rotation. Before Giannis went down, the Bucks were playing eight players in the wake of a season-ending injury to starting shooting guard Donte DiVincenzo. That didn’t change much after Antetokounmpo left the game. Aside from a two-minute cameo for Jeff Teague, Milwaukee relied on a core group of seven players before Budenholzer emptied his bench in the late stages.
In the regular season, Budenholzer typically replaced Giannis with his backup Bobby Portis but occasionally went to smaller starting lineups promoting wing Pat Connaughton from the bench. Now that P.J. Tucker is a fixture in the starting lineup, smaller lineups look more promising for the Bucks. Portis has played only sparingly in the playoffs with both Tucker and Brook Lopez (six minutes, per NBA Advanced Stats), and that combo did not see action in Game 4.
Starting Connaughton would allow Budenholzer to stick to a relatively normal rotation with Portis as the primary reserve big man and Bryn Forbes coming in to spot players on the perimeter. Expect Milwaukee to extend the minutes of stars Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton, who are already averaging 38.5 and 36.8 MPG, respectively, in this series. We know they’re capable of more, as Middleton played 42.1 MPG in the Bucks’ seven-game series win over the Brooklyn Nets and Holiday 39.8.
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s status for the remainder of the Eastern Conference finals is unclear. Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images
How to replace Giannis’ scoring
As ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz pointed out in our Game 4 takeaways, Milwaukee already has a template for winning in the playoffs without Giannis. In Game 4 of last year’s conference semifinals against the Miami Heat, Antetokounmpo left early in the second quarter after aggravating a right ankle sprain. Down at the time, the Bucks rallied to extend their season before losing a hard-fought Game 5 against Miami.
That victory was powered by Middleton, who was off to a slow start. He had just two points on 1-of-5 shooting in the first quarter-plus as Giannis’ 19 points kept Milwaukee in the game. Thereafter, Middleton scored 34 points, including 21 in the third quarter and outscoring the Heat 9-8 in overtime. When Miami was able to hold Middleton to 8-of-25 shooting in Game 5, the Bucks struggled to put points on the board, finishing with just 94 in the series-ending loss.
During games Antetokounmpo missed during the 2020-21 regular season, Milwaukee replaced his production by committee. Middleton, Holiday, Lopez and Portis all elevated their scoring per 36 minutes. In a playoff setting, however, it’s likely up to Middleton and Holiday to carry the load, and sacrificing efficiency will be a concern. Middleton’s true shooting percentage dropped from .595 in games he played with Giannis to .545 without him despite those matchups coming primarily against below-average defenses.
Already, Middleton’s efficiency has been an issue in this series outside of his dominant 20-point fourth quarter to help the Bucks come from behind in Game 3. After that effort, the Hawks adjusted by inserting Cam Reddish in their rotation to match up with Middleton.
However, the bigger change was Middleton’s production when defended by Atlanta wing Kevin Huerter. He went 0-for-6 in that matchup during Game 4, per ESPN Stats & Information research, finishing with 16 points on 6-of-17 shooting overall.
How Milwaukee wins with defense
Thus far, we’ve focused on the offensive end of the court, but the Bucks still have the potential to shut down the Atlanta offense without Giannis — particularly if Trae Young is again sidelined by a bone bruise in his right foot.
Before Antetokounmpo went down, Milwaukee’s defensive effort in Game 4 was disappointing. Despite Young’s absence, the Hawks got better shots than in any of the first three games of the series, according to Second Spectrum’s quantified shot probability (qSP) measure, which factors in the shooter’s ability as well as the location, type of shot and distance to nearby defenders.
Still, Atlanta easily exceeded its shot quality in terms of shot making. Clint Capela hitting a shot from behind the backboard with the shot clock running out was typical of a night where everything seemed to go the Hawks’ way.
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If the Bucks come out with a better game plan for dealing with Lou Williams as Young’s replacement and some of those shots don’t fall, Milwaukee can turn this into a lower-scoring grind like the second-round series against Brooklyn. The Nets cracked 100 points in just one of the Bucks’ four wins in that matchup.
Although Giannis was the 2019-20 Defensive Player of the Year, Milwaukee’s defensive rating was actually better in games he missed after accounting for the opposition. That seems to suggest the other Bucks players picking up their defensive intensity without Antetokounmpo around, something that didn’t happen Tuesday after his shocking injury, is more likely going forward.
As a result, Milwaukee is a 2-point favorite heading into Game 5 at home according to Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill. That line is slightly smaller than the typical home-court advantage during the playoffs, per ESPN Stats & Information, suggesting the Hawks would be slightly favored on a neutral court.
If he misses Game 5, the two-time MVP will unquestionably be impossible for the Bucks to replace. Nonetheless, with strong defense and better shooting by Middleton, there’s still a path for Milwaukee to win Game 5 and move within a game of reaching the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974.