If the prediction is “Hawks in six” (a fairly common one in the the blogosphere), why shouldn’t it be seven? Can the Hawks, a notoriously road-challenged team, be expected to win a Game 6 in Milwaukee?
I’m throwing this out there after reading Sekou Smith’s preview at NBA.com, “Despite losing Bogut, Bucks big test for the Hawks.” Smith likes the Hawks in six, and he’s not the only one. Kelly Dwyer at Ball Don’t Lie says six, too. These are guys who know the Bucks, doubt the Hawks a bit and don’t think Atlanta can take it in five — I don’t either.
THIS JUST IN: The Hawks own bloggers at SB Nation (Peachtree Hoops) doubt the Hawks enough to call it in six.
Well fellas, if this series is going six, then it’s going seven.
Smith in his preview does a better job of making points that so far a lot “Fear the Deer” faithful still don’t seem to trust, points that I haven’t emphasized enough (probably because I’ve been busy harping on the Hawks’ defensive tendencies, or lack therof). The biggest one, in all its obviousness, is that Scott Skiles‘ Bucks, with or without Bogut, are an intense, elite defensive team that will challenge every single step the Hawks make on offense. The Bucks have spent the better part of the season talking about “50-50 plays” that win games. Never count them out.
This follows to the rather impolite sort of point that I don’t mind making: the Bucks are clearly the better-coached team, the players “coached up” in a way that the Hawks aren’t. The Bucks, believe it or not, LIKE playing never-let-up Skiles-ketball and Skiles has the Bucks organization behind him 100%. On the Hawks side, coach Mike Woodson may very well be looking for a job after the playoffs (see below).
Bucks Offense: The Bucks have their offensive shortcomings, no question about it, while the Hawks are second only to the Suns in offensive efficiency. A lot of smoooth shooters on this Hawks team. But the Bucks have a Skiles-induced clarity about what they need to do to make up the difference and they’re none too shy about it. They’ll move the rock quickly side-to-side and get the Hawks defenders switching and moving, then either shoot it without conscience or attack the rim. John Salmons, Carlos Delfino and Ersan Ilyasova are free to fire it up from Downtown. Skiles and Brandon Jennings have already identified the rookie’s need to be on the attack. The bench offense led by Luke Ridnour and Jerry Stackhouse will keep up the pace amid reminders (and a lot of in-game griping from me) that Ilyasova and a couple of other teammates are on the court with them.
Hawks Defense: The Hawks boast a single player — Josh Smith — who relishes defense. The rest of the rotation is filled with terrible perimeter defenders and a couple of big men (Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia) who, as under-utilized as they are in Woodson’s offensive system, are forced to play out-of-position D due to all the switching that goes on to cover up for the shortcomings of Mike Bibby, Jamal Crawford, Joe Johnson and Maurice Evans. “Play Jeff Teague” is darn near a mantra from Hawks faithful who care about defense.
The crux of the matter from the Hawks side seems to be same one that’s been there for a couple of years: Will Josh Smith be consistent enough for the Hawks to be an elite team? I’ll suggest that this problem with Smith isn’t necessarily his problem at all — if Woodson was a better coach, if the Hawks had brought in more complete players than Bibby or Crawford, the team’s hopes wouldn’t rest on Smith being a Superman help defender.
Bucks believers and nonbelievers alike are concerned about Brandon Jennings’ shooting and whether or not he can make the Hawks pay for all that switching around they do on D. It’s a “will the rookie make the right decisions?” question that drives Jennings to do what he’s done all season long: prove people wrong. Just don’t turn the ball over in crunchtime, kid, and crank it up.
Rebounding: If there’s one key for both teams beyond the basic “this is what they are and what they do” stuff, it’s rebounding. If the Bucks can rebound the ball with the kind of tenacity with which they D it up, they’ll be in a position to win this series. If not, they’ll take a game and it’ll be over in Atlanta, Game 5. We miss you Andrew Bogut.
Bogut’s backup, Kurt Thomas, will give what he can at age 38. The Bucks’ universally praised defensive specialist, Luc Mbah a Moute, will be asked to help on Smith and Johnson and keep the former off the glass. But Ersan Ilyasova is the man on the spot for the Bucks in the paint. Ilyasova’s knack for being in the right place at the right time to win the 50-50 plays that Skiles believes are the game deciders will be the key. These games will be close and could well come down to how many of these battles Ilyasova (and Mbah a Moute) win over Smith.
Johnson (21.3 ppg) for the Hawks and Salmons (19.9) for the Bucks will fill it up. That almost goes without saying, and in this blog it nearly did.
The Bucks will force this series to a Game 7. With the right break or two (or three) they’ll take the series.
Woodson and Johnson’s last stand? Atlanta coach Mike Woodson’s contract is up after this season. One would think Woodson would have been offered an extension had the Hawks wanted him back. This was an issue after last season, still no extension for Woodson.
Joe Johnson will hit the free agent market this summer, looking for a max deal. If the Hawks pony up, they’re in luxury tax territory standing pat with a team that can’t beat the Orlando Magic.
This should have been dealt with last summer but instead of thinking about the next three-four years and retooling around All-Pro Johnson and a talented front court after being swept by the Cavs, the Hawks decided it was all about this season. They resigned Bibby and added Crawford, got off to a fast start, then ran smack into Dwight Howard and the Magic’s will to dominate. Now the Hawks find themselves only a few games better than Bogut and Milwaukee, likely underdogs if the Bucks All-Pro center was playing in this series. The Bucks improvement aside, the rebuilding plan in Chicago has gone as planned and the Bulls are poised to be big winners in the summer, to say nothing of D-Wade’s powers of persuasion in Miami.
Not that a lowly Bucks blogger writing any of this on the eve of a playoffs series is big news, but this series is probably Woodson’s Waterloo. Win or lose against a well-coached Skiles team playing without its All-Pro center, this series will spell out in no uncertain terms the “what if” possibilities of making a coaching change in Atlanta. No two NBA organizations in the playoffs are so starkly different in terms of where they’re at — (whoa, almost forgot about the drama in Chicago) … In Atlanta, things are simpler.
The Hawks arrived at the crossroads last summer, chose their path and there’s no going back. The only direction now is forward, and forward means taking their lumps against the Bucks (and Magic if they survive), resigning Johnson and saying goodbye to Woodson in hopes that a new coach is the guy who can lead the current Hawks to the next level.