You read it here first if by chance you did, and the Bob Boozer Jinx was likely the only place you read it. … Call me crazy (and some did) but I did indeed perpetrate the prediction that the Bucks would defeat the Hawks in their Round One series, completely violating company policy regarding predictions. We’re fairly well steeped in NBA mojo here at the Jinx, and none too comfortable about predicting the future. Disaster has struck too many times in 41-year history of the Bucks, a franchise that has never been able to balance the ledger of good fortune after winning an NBA title in just its 3rd season.
But lay it down I did as I finished up the blog-to-be-posted the early ayem of Game 1, and I was serious about it. I didn’t start out to pick a winner that day, only to make the case that, “This one’s going 7” and that the Bucks would push the Hawks to the limit. When I got to the wrap-up, “Bucks in 7” just jumped onto the screen in a fit of automatic writing, and I the more I thought about where the Hawks and Bucks “are at” as teams, I couldn’t justify backing down and hitting delete.
The Hawks fought back from the brink of elimination Saturday in hostile territory, in the land of beer, crazy Bango stunts and Andrew Bogut‘s rafter-raising Squad 6. Now the series is right where I thought it would be: Game 7 in Atlanta with each team having won a game on the other’s home court. No, I didn’t think games 5 and 6 would be wins for the road team — I thought we’d see those in the first four games — but whatever the path, Game 7 is upon us.
The Bucks, even without Andrew Bogut, managed to create a perfect storm for the Hawks to fail in this series. Wasn’t Atlanta supposed to be better than this? How did I know? There were plenty of patterns and indicators. … Here are 10 of ’em.
1) The Bucks. They’re underrated of course. This is the first season they’ve won, and few NBA watchers and wags really pay much attention to Milwaukee. Guards Luke Ridnour and Charlie Bell, 2nd-year defensive ace Luc Mbah a Moute, two little-used backup centers and Andrew Bogut were the only returning rotation players from Scott Skiles‘ first season in Milwaukee (that was last season for those of you out there not paying attention). (Strange, mentioning Michael Redd here seems out of place, which is kind of ironic because Redd never fit in with the Skiles program, or with Bogut for that matter.) The Bucks righted their season (the first time) way back in November as live-wire rookie Brandon Jennings learned on the job and forwards Ersan Ilyasova and Carlos Delfino adjusted to NBA life playing for Skiles. They had to right the season again in January during a long West Coast trip, and … let’s just say that the Bucks went through a 3-4 month ordeal that brewed the team chemistry, the end result being pretty strong stuff. They were beating the likes of Denver and Portland and going toe-to-toe with Boston, Cleveland, Dallas and Orlando before Jerry Stackhouse or John Salmons arrived on the scene. The team that Stack and Fish joined had the majority of their games against the Western Conference and 2010 playoff teams behind them, and was poised to run to the playoffs and make life miserable for a frontrunning team like the Hawks.
2) Scott Skiles. As efficient as the Hawks offense can be, I didn’t think that they’d react too well to a Scott Skiles team being in their grill for 7 games. It starts with defense, of course, tenacious ball-pressure defense designed to protect the basket and get a hand-in-the-face challenge on at least 75% of opponent shots. The offense keeps the tempo up and quick with movement of people and ball (extra passes don’t show up in the pace stats, kids) and no let-up is tolerated. It’s an intense style of play, the Bucks have “bought in” and actually enjoy playing it — and they like playing for Skiles. In Milwaukee there are no stars and equal accountability for all; it’s an NBA utopia for hardworking players who enjoy defense (some of the Bucks really do enjoy defense, believe it or not), and they never quit. They’re an extension of Skiles. They may not shoot well at times (and I may understate things at times) but the Bucks are irrepressible. Push comes to shove, the opponent usually breaks before the Bucks do.
The basics: In Skiles’ two seasons, the Bucks were #1 and #2 in forcing turnovers; this year they were ranked #3 in defensive efficiency (pts per 100 possessions) behind Charlotte and Orlando.
3) Brandon Jennings. Skiles happens to be one of the best point guard coaches in the business, so I was surprised that Jennings had such a lackluster Game 2, settling for too many jumpers and 3-pointers (3-15 shooting). I was similarily surprised after Game 6 (4-18, but then, with so little falling for the Bucks it probably didn’t matter. It’s easy to forget sometimes that Jennings is a rookie who had never played in an NBA playoff before, or dealt with the junk-switching defense the Hawks threw at him (and a zone, too, in Game 6). Young Buck found “attack mode” in Game 3 and in games 3 and 4 the true Rookie of the Year was ripping past the big men shifting to guard him, and the Bucks enjoyed two straight layup and free throw fests. Joe Johnson (23 pts, 5.3 rebs, 6 asts) may end up being the star of the series but I just don’t see it happening. Jennings (19.3 pts, 3.5 asts, only 1.8 turnovers per) has that something extra, a hunger to his determination that you just don’t see very often. Kobe had it last year during the Lakers title run (it’s not there this time). Whatever it is, it’s rare and the Hawks haven’t been able to keep up with Jennings or stay in front of him. To win, the Bucks will need Jennings to shoot better in Game 7 than he did in Game 6 (4-15, 1/9 on threes), but I have a feeling that it’ll be Jennings’ defense that gets the Bucks to the East semis.
Speaking of defense: In just seven months working with Skiles, Jennings has already been recognized as one of the best point guard defenders in the NBA. If you don’t believe me or Basketball Prospectus, make a point of watching a Bucks-Bulls game next season. Brandon Jennings D-ing up Derrick Rose is a feast for the basketball inclined, and something that Tyreke Evans and Steph Curry voters should be required to watch.
4) The Hawks — paper tiger of the East. Most Bucks fans had bought into the “Celtics are fading” mumbo jumbo and thought the Bucks chances would be better against Boston. Well, the Celtics’ 50 wins came with a lot of concessions to age, health and playoff energy conservation. The Hawks 8-man rotation was probably the healthiest in the NBA this season (23 missed player games — unheard of). This takes some of the luster out of the 53 wins, which were built on a 34-7 record at home . The Hawks very mediocre road record (19-22) follows but what really struck me was the East vs. West disparity. Against the East (the teams that know them best) the Hawks record (32-20) was only one better than the Bucks (31-21) despite the Bucks’ trials, tribulations, injuries). The Hawks were 21-9 vs. the West, which tells you that the Hawks are better than about half the West and have a knack for jumping road-weary teams at home. Yeah, it’s kind of a surface level math read, but it adds up to the Hawks not being as good their record.
The SE Division: It didn’t enter into my thinking before the series, but the Hawks were just 8-8 in their Division. I was aware that the Magic had dominated the Hawks this season but didn’t realized the Hawks were so … mediocre (7-5) against the rest of their division. Paper tiger.
5) Coach Mike Woodson. I didn’t know the Hawks well enough to know the extent of the problem (“They’re the Denver of the East,” says Mound Round of Rebound himself. “They’re not listening to Mike Woodson.”) But these guys at Peachtree Hoops do. For me “the blowouts series” against well-known Southeast Division foe Miami in the 2009 playoffs signalled that there was probably a preparation/coaching problem in Atlanta. Their problems on the road never went away, and probably won’t with Woodson and this current cast of characters, anyway. It’s pretty clear that Woodson’s not holding anybody accountable in Atlanta and, as a result, Hawks management let him dangle all year without a contract extension. That’s a pretty good sign that the GM Rick Sund would prefer a new coach. Skiles, on the other hand, has the entire Bucks organization (and team) unified behind him.
6) The Hawks defense. They’re rated average (15th) in defensive efficiency and were actually slightly better than the NBA average. But don’t let that fool you — the Hawks perimeter defense is terrible, while their three big men are pretty good (Josh Smith finished 2nd in the Defensive Player of the Year vote behind Dwight Howard). This creates a root disparity that can’t be corrected on the court. The ball has to be stopped. The big men cannot be expected to constantly be there to give help and block layups.
… I wouldn’t blame Woodson as much as Hawks management. Resigning good-shooting, slow-footed Mike Bibby and space cadet defender Jamal Crawford worsened the outside-in disparity. In Milwaukee, we saw this with the Bucks from 2004-08. It doesn’t work, and switching around to cover defensive weaknesses isn’t good defense or good playoff baskeball. It’s really a credit to Woodson, Smith, Johnson and Al Horford, probably Zaza Pachuliua, too, that the Hawks win as much as they do.
7) When HAS Skiles had Bogut vs. the Hawks? This doesn’t get mentioned much. In fact, the only time I read or heard anything about it was when it was rattling around in my head. Since Skiles took the Milwaukee job, the Bucks had played 7 regular season games vs. the Hawks. Skiles had Bogut available for only three of those games. The Hawks and Bucks played four times in 2008-09 and Bogut played in one game (16 mins Jan. 31, a Bucks win). This year, Bogut played in 2 of the 3 games. Point being, Skiles is pretty well accustomed to trying all sorts of approaches to defending and scoring on Atlanta without Bogut. This could mean running the Ramon Sessions-Luke Ridnour dribble wheel (last year’s party); it could mean the Ilyasova Euro-trash and mayhem offense; or it could mean sending Delfino out for Gatorade and empanadas while waiting for his shot to come around. Due to injuries and foul trouble, the Bucks effectively played about one-third of 2009-10 without Bogut. Since Skiles became head coach, he’s only had his center for about half the 171
8) The Hawks missing “size advantage.” I could quibble over listed heights vs. actual heights, post more photographic evidence, but it’s plain for the eye to see that “center” Horford, Josh Smith and Zaza Pachulia aren’t any bigger than Luc Mbah a Moute, Ersan Ilyasova and Bogut’s aging but very experienced two-headed backup, Kurt Dan Thomadz-uric. The Bucks bigs have more than held their own in the paint (great job by the Hawks, though, in Game 6) and the rebounding battle has gone to the Bucks. The series turned when Skiles matched up 6′-8″ Smith with Mbah a Moute, also 6’8″ and quicker than Smith. …. Johnson, the Hawks’ 6’7″ shooting guard does have a size advantage, unless he’s being guarded by Mbah a Moute.
It certainly is true, however, that the Atlanta metropolis is bigger than the Milwaukee metropolis.
9) Are the Hawks more athletic and talented than the Bucks? I don’t know. Maybe it seems that way in Sportcenter highlights. Does it mean Josh Smith is strong and has ups? Does it mean the quicker and more focused defensive star guarding him (Mbah a Moute) isn’t talented? Who’s more athletic than the quicksilver Brandon Jennings? Does the fact that Joe Johnson makes a lot of right decisions controlling the Hawks offense make him less athletic, or just a better basketball player? People thought I was nuts when I said I thought the Bucks were “the better team” and “more of a team” than the Hawks who are, obviously, more a collection of individuals than the Bucks are. To paraphrase Doc Rivers in reference to Ersan Ilyasova (or was it Joakim Noah?) — “Energy is a talent. Determination is a talent.” Defense is a talent, too.
10) Hawks in 6? Many analysts picked the Hawks in 5, assuming the Bucks would win a game in Milwaukee. But a few writers who know the Bucks pretty well (Kelly Dwyer at Ball Don’t Lie and Sekou Smith at NBA.com) figured the series to go 6 games,which would put the final game of the series in Milwaukee. Well, if the Bucks are playing at home against the road-troubled Hawks in Game 6, why wouldn’t the Bucks be expected to send it back to Atlanta for Game 7?
The clincher was when the Hawks own bloggers at Peachtree Hoops didn’t think the Hawks could remain focused enough to end the series in 5. They also said Hawks in 6. ….
Well, fellas, let’s play 7.