Preview: Bucks vs. Hawks

MILWAUKEE — First-year Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer will match up against his former team for the first time Friday when the Atlanta Hawks make their only trip to town.

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Budenholzer has the Bucks battling with Toronto for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Milwaukee, coming of a 121-98 win over Detroit on New Year’s Day, is one of the hottest teams in the league, having won four consecutive games and eight of its past nine.

Milwaukee is averaging an NBA-best 117.0 points, just behind the franchise record of 118.8 set in 1969-70. Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging 26.3 points, 12.6 rebounds and 6.1 assists. He had 15 points – including a monster dunk – eight rebounds and seven assists against the Pistons.

“It’s fun to have nights like this,” Antetokounmpo said after Wednesday’s win. “Everybody has energy and plays hard.”

Atlanta, in its first season under coach Lloyd Pierce, is rebuilding. The Hawks, who lost 114-98 to Washington on Wednesday, are enduring the kind of inconsistencies expected of a young team. Atlanta (11-26) has dropped two straight games but had won five of its previous six. Sometimes, the Hawks have trouble closing.

“We struggled to execute down the stretch (against Indiana) and didn’t give ourselves the opportunity to make shots,” said Pierce, referring to an eight-point loss at the Pacers on Dec. 31.

Atlanta is led by second-year forward John Collins, who averages 18.8 points and 10.3 rebounds. Collins has posted a double-double in 12 of his last 14 games, and he is averaging 21.1 points and 12.4 rebounds during that stretch.

The Hawks have also seen the emergence of Kevin Huerter, a sharp-shooting rookie from Maryland. Huerter, who scored a career-high 22 points in 40 minutes against Indiana this week, has made a team-leading 55 3-pointers.

The Bucks played the Pistons without Jason Smith (left knee contusion), who could return on Friday. Atlanta is without Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince, who have ankle injuries.

Budenholzer made the most of his first opportunity as a head coach when he was hired by the Hawks in 2013 after he had served for 16 years as an assistant under Gregg Popovich at San Antonio.

In five seasons in Atlanta, Budenholzer enhanced his reputation as a good defensive coach, taking the team to the playoffs in each of his first four campaigns. The high point came in 2014-15, when the Hawks went 60-22, won all their home games in January and finished first in the Eastern Conference. Cleveland then swept Atlanta in the conference finals.

Atlanta made the playoffs the next two years but missed the postseason in 2017-18 after failing to re-sign center Al Horford and trading point guard Jeff Teague. Budenholzer received criticism for the trade that brought Dwight Howard to Atlanta and was relieved of his title as president of basketball operations.

Budenholzer and the club decided to sever their relationship in April, but he was hired as head coach of the Bucks in about three weeks.

The Bucks swept all three games against Atlanta last season. The teams play two more times this season, both in Atlanta – Jan. 13 and March 31.