Brandon Jennings wanted to play those “big bullies” from Boston, battle worn and battle weary as they are, missing some of their 2008 swagger but still the face of playoff intimidation. The Celtics are Goliath to Jennings and the Bogut-less Bucks’ David.
But Goliath refused to walk into David’s camp. In Chicago Tuesday, the Celtics monitored Kevin Garnett‘s minutes and left Rajon Rondo on the bench while Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich lit up the Celtics for 69 combined points to lead the Bulls to a 1o1-93 win. Goliath has lost six of its last nine and given up the #3 seed in the East to Atlanta.
The Bucks close the season with one final test against those bullies they see as rivals-to-be in the East. Then David, more than likely, prepares for a series with the Hawks.
The Hawks? Brandon Jennings vs. Mike Bibby doesn’t exactly set the world on fire (so far it hasn’t found so much as a flint or kindling). Josh Smith vs. Ersan Ilyasova? Not to tug on Smith’s headband here but it doesn’t have quite the same “oh-oh” gravity as Ilyasova vs. Garnett, and Smith will be too busy guarding Jennings and everybody else the Hawks can’t check to keep track of Ersan.
The Bucks, playing their 5th game without Andrew Bogut, filed another dud against the Hawks Monday night at the BC yet were within two, 89-87, in the 4th quarter before the Hawks pulled away. At least Jennings played in this one. In the first two games, the rookie point guard played a surprisingly few 40 minutes combined (an overtime loss in Atlanta and a 98-95 win in Milwaukee March 22). Jennings played 40 mins Monday and threw up 23 shots, the kind of BJ-gunning night that has become rare since John Salmons became a Buck.
If it’s beginning to sound like the Bucks haven’t shown the Hawks their true game, that’s because they really didn’t, even when Bogut was healthy. What’s going on here?
“I think the main thing was just lack of focus, even myself,” Jennings said after Monday’s loss. “We were giving up a lot of buckets and we were hanging on the screens and not fighting through anything. It was just a tough night.”
“Our whole demeanor and our body language and everything wasn’t what it normally is,” said coach Scott Skiles. “We didn’t have that passionate, intense feeling that we need to have.”
Compare that uninspired vibe to Jennings attitude after the Celtics game:
“All I can say is just sit back, get ready for the playoffs, because this is fitting to be crazy. We’re up for it and it’s going to be a crazy series. … Boston is like the big bullies from school. A lot of teams don’t like that and a lot of teams aren’t going to back down. Jerry (Stackhouse) told me on the court, he said ‘Watch when the playoffs come, this is shifting to be fun.’”
The Bucks had a pretty good idea, given the Miami Heat’s soft schedule, that the odds were heavily against them winning the 5th seed in the East. Their own schedule coming down the stretch was anything but soft. You can hardly blame the Bucks for assuming even as late as last weekend that the Celtics would win the 3rd seed and that the Heat and Hawks would be pitted in a 4 vs. 5 rematch. You can’t really blame them for failing to see the Hawks as their playoff competition. Or for losing their sense of certainty after the Celtics blew it at home against the Wizards on Sunday.
Monday found the Bucks hanging back and studying the Hawks as though playing them for the first time. And it was the first time for Jennings, Delfino, Ilyasova, playing without Bogut.
Of particular interest was the Hawks’ tendency to switch on the picks the Bucks big set up high for Jennings. Good defensive teams (Bucks, Bobcats, Celtics, Magic) don’t switch, they fight through picks. You don’t want really want big forward/”centers” Zaza Pachulia or Al Horford on Jennings. And you don’t want Bibby switching onto Ilyasova.
It follows then, if you’re Hawks coach Mike Woodson, you don’t really think Bibby can guard Jennings either, which, of course, is the point of all the switching.
“Nothing against Al (Horford) or Zaza (Pachulia), but if those guys are switching onto point guards and two-guards, you’ve got to make them pay. And we didn’t do a very good job of that,” Skiles said after the Bucks uninspired effort Monday.
“If that’s what they’re going to do, we’ve got to be able to exploit that,” added John Salmons.
Well, ho-hum to that. The Hawks are an average defensive team. They give up 107 points per 100 possessions, 15th in the league, evidence that Smith can’t guard everybody. They’re the 2nd-most efficient offense, scoring 111.9 per 100, 2nd best in the NBA — yet they’re 5 points under that mark vs. the Bucks.
Bogut wasn’t exactly a force against the Hawks this season, something else to think about in this matchup. Yet still the Hawks have struggled. Bogut has played three games vs. Atlanta since Skiles took over the team — Bucks have won two of those and lost the third in overtime.
With Bogut not playing, the court levels for the Hawks, no doubt about that, but they don’t counter with a center for the Bucks to be concerned about (no, Horford’s not a center). Thinking back to the three games the Scott Skiles Bucks played vs. the Hawks last season without Bogut, the Hawks struggled while the Bucks got whatever they wanted on the offensive end. (I’m actually thinking of two of those games; the less said about the embarassing debacle in Atlanta the better, only to say that was the only game Michael Redd has played against the Hawks in two years.) The Bucks are, as Jennings said “right there” with the Hawks under any circumstances.
The wheels are turning in Milwaukee. They’d of course prefer the Goliath challenge of the Celtics front line, and the Jennings vs. Rajon Rondo matchup is one for the marquee.
The Hawks? That’s interesting, sure. Of course the Bucks can outplay the Hawks, and beat them … Ho-hum.
The Miami Heat have the same idea: Unlike the Bucks, the Heat aren’t so eager to play the Celtics and are apparently willing to open the door for the Bucks to grab the 5th seed. The Heat will reportedly rest Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem and Jermaine O’Neal tonight in the season finale vs. the Nets. Tanking to 6th talk is all you’ll hear out of Miami today.
While there’s no reason the Heat shouldn’t be able to beat the Nets without their starters and Haslem, don’t forget Friday’s Nets-Bulls fiasco. A Bucks Celtics series doesn’t seem like the long, long shot it was after Tuesday nights games. If the Bucks win in Boston and the Nets win in Miami, the Bucks go to Boston this weekend. If the Bucks and Celtics really really want to play each other, they can make it happen.
The View from Boston: Well, the habs needed the Bucks to beat the Hawks Monday to seal this up, but they can’t really complain. Had they only beaten the Wiz at home Sunday, the Bucks might not have been so dejected about the playoff picture going in to the Atlanta game. The C’s are sure to be resting Garnett tonight against the Bucks … and possibly Pierce too. Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo don’t need the rest, neither do the Bucks or Brandon Jennings.