John Collins of Atlanta Hawks nets against Milwaukee Bucks during their NBA game at Ethad Arena in Abu Dhabi. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: The new NBA season starts on October 18 and all the teams have been participating in pre-season friendlies. However, the league saved the best for last when the Atlanta Hawks took on reigning champions Milwaukee Bucks at the Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi on Thursday night.

In a thrilling contest, the two NBA giants provided a spectacular end-to-end contest with the Hawks winning the first of two matches by 123-113 in NBA’s UAE debut.

There was a buzz in the air ahead of the clash and the excitement grew when nine-time NBA All-Star Dominique Wilkins, one of the most acrobatic slam dunkers in NBA history, was invited on court to take a lap of honour. He was followed by Chris Bosh, a highly decorated power forward of his era but the biggest cheer of the night was reserved for Shaquille O’Neal, the four-time champion and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer and official NBA Abu Dhabi Games 2022 Ambassador. Fans grabbed photos with the icons and also of the Larry O’Brien trophy, which is awarded to the NBA champions. It was a carnival-like atmosphere inside and outside the stadium and when the match started the noise reached deafening levels.

Game time

Point guard Trae Young said he would put on a dazzling display for NBA’s UAE debut and the Atlanta Hawks star, who led the league in total points and assists last season, which has not been done in 45 years. He was true to his word. The No 11 put in a solid shift and he proved to be a menace all night for the Bucks’ defence with his meandering runs much to the delight of the 18,000 spectators packed inside the sprawling venue. “We’ve been trying to build some chemistry in the team while we have been here Abu Dhabi,” said Young. “It’s been great here. But we are here to practice and improve for the new season. The more we play together the more I hope it will show on court.”

Pre-season games tend to be played at a slightly slower pace as they are designed to allow players to gain some crucial minutes on the court and build their fitness for the long and gruelling season ahead. But not this match. It was played at a 100kph from the moment the referee blew his whistle to signal the start of the first of four 12-minute quarters.

This friendly will not have any impact on the regular season or playoffs but it was still highly competitive and both teams went out there playing with speed, aggression and desperate to win. They certainly put on a show for the fans, who celebrated each field goal with loud cheers and enthusiasm.

Hawks head coach Nate McMillan was able to allow his starters time to gel and had the chance to evaluate several younger players on the fringes of the roster. They all performed admirably and will have given the boss a real selection headache for their first match of the season on October 20 against Houston Rockets at State Farm Arena. “I thought it was a good game,” said McMillan. “Both teams played well. It’s a pleasure being here in Abu Dhabi and having a chance to learn about the culture and to play some games.”

The Hawks were missing Bogdan Bogdanovic, Jalen Johnson and Trent Forrest but All-Star point guard Dejounte Murray looked in fine form and was pulling the strings from deep and keeping the team on the front foot.

Two-time MVP

The Bucks were named as favourites for this season’s title in the annual survey of the league’s 30 general managers and they looked good at the Etihad. On this evidence, they will surely be in the mix next season and will give the Philadelphia 76ers a severe test when the real action begins on the 21st at the Wells Fargo Centre Philadelphia. They had rested Giannis Antetokounmpo in their first preseason game against the Memphis Grizzlies but the two-time MVP played on Thursday night and showed how vital he will be for them next season. His ability to keep crossovers low enough to avoid swiping hands all night long was impressive. He will be key in their pursuit of success next season.

The teams are set to do it all again on Saturday evening and if the match is anything as exciting as Thursday night’s, then basketball fans will be in for a real treat.