I’ve been thinking about the Bucks of the early 1980’s a lot lately. A symptom of winning, I think, of knowing the Bucks are going to be in the playoffs and have a shot at taking a series. Yesterday, I spent the pregrame part of the evening on youtube, watching what clips I could find of those great Marques and Sidney teams. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find extended Bucks-Sixers playoff clips from, well, pick a year. 1981, ’82, ’83. The first was a classic, an emotionally draining 7-game East semifinal, marred by controversy and a shot clock that magically reset for the Sixers in the final minute of game seven. The third was the 1983 East final, the series of the “Bobby Jones stepped out of bounds! His foot was on the line!” no call in overtime in Game One. The Sixers always seemed to win the give or take plays at crunchtime, the little stuff like getting a finger on a rebound and tapping it off Bob Lanier’s feet, or grabbing an airball in the lane for an easy put back.
Those plays seem to be going the Bucks way lately; it’s Ersan Ilyasova and not Carlos Boozer releasing to the weak side for the uncanny, right-place-at-the right-time tip-in off a miss to win a Bucks-Jazz game; it’s Andrew Bogut and not Josh Smith of the Hawks extending over two defenders with 30 seconds left Monday to steal a rebound by tapping it out to the perimenter. A fresh shot clock for the Bucks with the ball and a two point lead, the hearts of Hawks fans, not Bucks fans, sinking over the lost opportunity. The Bucks are 15-2 since acquiring John Salmons, not simply a very good 12-5 record with the knowledge that the team is playing well and working hard. As impossible as it seems to a long-suffering Bucks fan, maybe, just maybe Milwaukee finally has a team that takes more than it gives. Maybe, just maybe, the Bucks finally have the right aggravating-yet-talented dirty work guys who know how to win. There are certainly more of them (Bogut, Ilyasova, Luc Mbah a Moute, Carlos Delfino) on the roster than ever before. And I do mean ever.
Not that I don’t appreciate a great shootout like the one John Salmons (16 pts, 4th quarter, 32 for the game) and Joe Johnson (14 in the 4th, 27 game) had at the BC last night in the 4th quarter, sending the fans into a frenzy. That brought back some memories, too, of Marques Johnson and Dr. J dueling shot for shot, possession after possession, the hoop getting wider and wider each time the ball touched their hands. It was exhilerating. It was the great show that pro basketball is supposed to be. It was magic. But those legendary NBA shootouts always seemed to end in a draw, locking up in the final minutes when the clock would slow to a crawl on every defensive stand while it ran double-time when the Bucks had the ball.
With 3:31 to play Monday and the game tied at 91, Bucks coach Scott Skiles decided that the Hawks had had enough fun for the night. The Hawks, quite frankly, don’t play very good on-ball defense, so Salmons had any shot he wanted. And with Johnson bombing away from the outside, there was no need to waste Bogut on the task of pulling Johnson’s jumpers out of the net. Even Kurt Thomas can handle that, affording Bogut a long rest and a front row seat for the Salmons-Johnson show. At 3:31, Bogut checked in for Thomas.
On the Bucks next possession, Jerry Stackhouse chucked up a three and missed, and I wondered if Stackhouse noticed that Skiles had put the Bucks All-Pro center back in the game. I’m pretty sure the Bucks haven’t spent the last five years developing Bogut so that 35-year-old Stackhouse can do what he’s always done — miss shots in the clutch. I also assumed that when GM John Hammond traded a promising young big man, Amir Johnson (whom we had just acquired from Detroit) to Toronto for Carlos Delfino, a tough guy, defensive small forward who could shoot, the idea was for Carlos to shoot (I didn’t like that trade at the time, but that was before Carlos turned into a basketball-playing version of Wolverine, without the claws). Acquiring Salmons from the Bulls last month may involve some risks this summer, but whatever happens with his contract, he’s being paid now to shoot a lot better than Jerry Stackhouse shoots. The Hawks were going to make us pay for that shot, I was sure.
But it didn’t happen. Bogut rebounded a Josh Smith miss, yelled something at point guard Luke Ridnour (Skiles apparently doesn’t like Brandon Jennings in the 4th quarter against the Hawks – in Atlanta, Ridnour played the late 4th quarter and OT) and on the next possession had the ball in the post and was backing a much smaller Al Horford into the paint with a high dribble, waiting to see where the help was going to come from (Josh Smith had, improbably blocked three of Bogut’s shots on the evening).
But Bogut wasn’t checking the help. With a flick of his arm he slipped a bounce pass past his half-turned back and hit Delfino, fast cutting down from the weak side with Smith on his heels. Delfino grabbed it under the hoop and reverse-dunked it (and Smith’s hand, it seemed) into the cylinder.
The Hawks weren’t done, though, and two more jumpers by Johnson put them up two with a minute to play, and Skiles did what he should have done at the dead ball 30 seconds — get Stackhouse out of the game and put 6’8″ defensive demon Luc Mbah a Moute on the 6’8″ Johnson. Whenever it was done, it was done, and the sudden change in Johnson’s quality of life so late in the game stopped the Hawks offense cold.
Then came THE play, the little play. A miss by Ridnour bounded high, and as Smith and Horford went high to get it, the outstretched hand of Bogut got there first and suddenly the ball was back in Ridnour’s hands. The Bucks aren’t supposed to make that play; it’s supposed to go against them, to Allen Iverson or to Bobby Jones, to some teammate of Larry Bird’s. It’s supposed to go off Big Dog’s foot and out of bounds.
When Johnson hacked Salmons trying to deny him the ball a few seconds later, leading to the free throws that put the Bucks ahead for good, it didn’t feel at all like a lucky break. The foul was supposed to happen and the Bucks were supposed to win, because on this Bucks team, the little plays, the hustle plays and the stupid plays, all seem to go our way.
This may take some getting used to.