Tag Archives: Atlanta Hawks

38 or Less: The worst regular season won-lost records by NBA playoff teams of the last 38 years

To mark the Milwaukee Bucks 38-win playoff season, here are the “38-wins-or-less” playoff teams from the 1975 to 2013 seasons, with an important caveat:  I’ve excluded 11 teams that won between 35 and 38 games and made the 1984-1988 playoffs, listing only the two playoff qualifiers from those five seasons who lost so much they deserve mention.  Those five “exempt” seasons were the first years of the 16-team playoff format when, suddenly, only 7 of 23 NBA teams missed the post-season.   Somebody had to lose during the regular season, and some of those losers found themselves in the playoffs.

Some of them were pretty good too, given the strength of the East and scheduling heavily weighted toward conference play — an eighth Eastern Conference seed in 1986 with 35 wins was comparable to a 44-win team a few years later after expansion, not so much to the teams listed below.  (Such dilution realities certainly put a damper on the Bulls 72-win season in 1996.)

The 1975-1983 seasons were more “apples to apples” in terms of today’s playoff format. In 1975 and 1976, ten of 18 teams made the playoffs.  After the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, 12 of 22 made it.  In 1980 the Mavs were added to the league and the conferences properly aligned; the 12 team format remained until the 1983-84 season.

League expansion began in 1988 with the addition of Miami and Charlotte, tolling the beginning of the end of the NBA’s “Golden Age.”  By 1990 there were 27 teams, 16 making the playoffs, and four expansion teams around to beat up on and puff most of the worst playoff records above our 38-44 cut-off.

Note that of the 13 teams on this list, no team other than the 1976 Pistons (led by Bob Lanier) won its first round series.

1. 1986 Chicago Bulls (30-52). Michael Jordan broke his foot in the third game of his second NBA season and missed the next 64. He would come back to have a 63-point game against Larry Bird and the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, not enough to prevent a Celtics sweep. The 1986 Celtics won 67 games, the third championship for the Bird-McHale-Parrish front court and are widely considered one of the top three or four teams in NBA history.

This Bulls team had talent other than Jordan, though great it was not. Half the players ended up in rehab of one form or another, facts reported by writers Sam Smith (The Jordan Rules) and David Halberstam (Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made) among others. Much of this centered around guard Quentin Dailey. Forwards Orlando Woolridge and Sidney Green were also in this group of early Jordan teammates, along with big Dave Corzine at center and Hall of Fame scorer George Gervin in his final season (16.2 ppg).  Charles Oakley and John Paxson are the most notable here due to Oakley’s later success with the Knicks and Paxson’s ability to cling to Jordan’s star for three titles.  In 1986 Oakley was a rookie and Paxson had yet to solidify his future as Jordan’s pal. Stan Albeck was head coach.

The Bulls had the misfortune of playing in an Eastern Conference ruled by three of the top four teams in basketball since 1980 — the Celtics, the Sixers and the Bucks — with the Pistons and Hawks rising up bit by bit each year in hopes of challenging the top.  The “Bad Boys” Pistons in 1986 were still a couple of years away from their baddest phase.

The NBA schedule in those years was more heavily weighted toward conference play than it is now, which made the 1986 Bulls schedule a prolonged nightmare.  They played the Beasts of the East six times each, winning just six of the 30 games.  The Bulls weren’t the only team in the East hammered by the schedule.  A tough, talented, Buck Williams-led New Jersey Nets team could muster only 39 wins and were swept by the Bucks in the first round. Rookie Patrick Ewing’s Knicks lost 59 games.

Throw out the five Beasts of the East and two losses against the “Showtime” Lakers, and the 1986 Bulls won 24 and lost 26 against the rest of the league, not too shabby for a hodgepodge group of guys playing most of the season without Michael Jordan.

2. 1988 San Antonio Spurs (31-51).  The last season of the 23-team league as the expansion to Miami and Charlotte would occur in the summer of ’88.  Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics remained at the top, with the “Bad Boys” Pistons shoving Boston off the pinnacle to reach their first NBA final.  Some of the power balance had shifted East to West with the decline of Philly and the Bucks, along with the rise of the Dallas Mavs, creating the parity between conferences than hadn’t existed since 1980.

In the East, the Bucks played their first year under new coach Del Harris and fell to 42-40. The Pistons and Hawks and Sidney Moncrief’s ailing knees had finally caught up with our Bucks.  Ewing’s Knicks were getting better, and won 38 games.  Jordan’s Bulls had their first 50-win season.

In the West the Stockton-Malone Jazz fell short of the fifty milestone with 47 wins.  Magic and the Lakers won 62 and their fifth championship.

While most of the lower rung playoff teams of this period can’t be labelled “bad” by today’s standards, the 1988 Spurs were bad in any day.  They were swept (3-0) in the first round by the Lakers.

The Spurs best player was defensive demon Alvin Robertson, who would be traded to Milwaukee in 1989 for All-Pro (3rd Team) forward Terry Cummings.  Robertson’s teammate on the Spurs, Frank Brickowski, would join him in Milwaukee in 1990, traded for Paul Pressey.  Why all the trades with the Spurs?  By 1990 the Spurs had center David Robinson and were trying to get to the top with help from Bucks playoff veterans, while the Bucks and owner Herb Kohl, encouraged by the pending retirement of Sidney Moncrief, opted to go a cheaper route and would slide into their long rebuild in the 1990s.

3. 1995 Boston Celtics (35-47).  The Celtics were sort of rebuilding (or beginning to) after the Larry Bird era. Kevin McHale had retired in 1993. All-Star shooting guard Reggie Lewis collapsed and died of heart failure that summer (1993), and the Celtics in 1995 were still staggering under allegations that he might have been saved, had the team (and those close to Lewis) not been so eager to dismiss evidence that Lewis was at risk, to the point of avoiding tests for cocaine use (Money Players, “Puff Policy,” 1997, by Armen Keteyian and other journalists).  In an effort to fill the void left by Lewis’ death, the Celtics signed 35-year-old Dominique Wilkins, not flying as high as he did with the Hawks in the 1980s but scoring 17.8 ppg to lead the team.  Coached by Chris Ford. Dumped out of the playoffs (3-1) by Shaq’s Orlando Magic, who would go on to be swept in the Finals by Hakeem Olajawon’s Rockets.

4. 2004 Boston Celtics (36-46).    All that losing in the mid-1990s brought draft picks and an effort to build a contender around the would-be duo of Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce, who instead became symbols of post-Jordan NBA mediocrity.  The 2003-04 season found the Celtics tearing down again and trading Walker, one of the least scrupulous shot hogs in the game.  That left Pierce, listed as a shooting guard then, and boy did he ever.  Pierce shot nearly 19 times a game – and missed 11  – shooting less than 30% from three-point-land and averaging 23 ppg. The Celtics fired coach Jim O’Brien after 46 games and assistant John Carroll mopped up.

These were rather dark days for the NBA. The pace was at an all-time low.  Average and below average shooters bricked away at will and somehow made all-star teams. Ball movement was often non-existent, a trend that continued for years.  Assists would reach an all-time low in 2006.  Kobe and Shaq bickered in LA and guys like Walker, Pierce, Allen Houston and the Bucks’ Michael Redd gunned poorly selected shots out of isolation offenses, winning big contracts if not playoff success.  Orlando Magic star Tracy McGrady was the best of this lot, yet all of it was ugly basketball.

The 2004 Celtics were a bad team in an Eastern Conference that had deteriorated rapidly in the early-aughts.  The 4th seeded Miami Heat won just 42 regular season games.  But hey – former Buck Vin Baker was on this Celtics team for a few weeks in 2003. Kendrick Perkins was a rookie.  The Celtics were swept in Round 1 by 38-year-old Reggie Miller’s second-to-last Pacers team, about seven months before the “Malice at the Palace” in Detroit.  Dark days indeed.

5. 1997 Los Angeles Clippers (36-46).  Loy Vaught (who? – I can’t even find a picture of him) led this team in scoring at 14.9 ppg.  Forwards Bo Outlaw and Eric Piatkowski led a halfway decent bench crew.  Coached by Bill Fitch, somehow still in the league.  The Western Conference was none too balanced in those days, as the Clippers were one of three teams from the west to make the playoffs with a losing record.  The T-Wolves (40-42) in Kevin Garnett’s second year and the post-Charles Barkley Suns (also 40-42) were the others.  The Clippers were swept out of the first round by the Stockton-Malone Jazz, fated to go on to lose their first of two NBA Finals to Jordan and the Bulls.

6. 1976 Detroit Pistons (36-46).  This might be getting a bit far back — the league that existed prior to the merger with the ABA — but 1975 and 1976 get our deepest historical look because the 1971-74 playoff format allowed less than half the league to qualify (8 of 17 teams, so no real losers).  This changed in 1975, with the addition of the New Orleans Jazz and the short-lived 10 of 18 format. In the 1975 and 1976 seasons, a total of four teams with losing records made the playoffs.  Another quirk was the regular season schedule, heavily weighted toward division play instead of conference play.  Midwest Division teams the Bucks, Pistons, Bulls and Kansas City Kings played each other seven times in the season, 36 games against the nine teams in the Eastern conference and 25 games against the Pacific Division. This is as equalized as the NBA schedule has ever been.  To further emphasize the importance of division play, the top two teams in each division received a playoff bid, with a 5th seed going to the team in the conference with the next best record. So a team in the Pacific division with a better record than either of the Midwest Division leaders could miss the playoffs entirely.  This happened to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers in 1976. The playoff teams with the two worst records, regardless of division standings, would then face off in a wild card mini-series, best two out of three. A pretty good system if you think divisions should matter, a belief the current NBA schedule makers clearly do not hold.

Bob Lanier’s Pistons won 40 games in the 1975 season and 36 in 1976, making them the model of mid-70s NBA mediocrity. But “mediocrity” in the mid-1970s when you had a Hall of Fame center meant that you were pretty competitive when the center was healthy.  Lanier missed 18 games in 1976 and the Pistons lost 12 of those.

Detroit in 1975 had also traded star veteran guard Dave Bing (another Hall of Famer) to the Bullets for young point guard Kevin Porter (who would lead the NBA in assists for the Pistons a few years later) but Porter was lost to injury 19 games into the season and the Pistons struggled.  Coach Ray Scott was fired and replaced by Herb Brown, and Brown found 20-year-old point guard Eric Money on his bench to fill in for Porter.  Led by Lanier, power forward Curtis Rowe and Money, the Pistons won 10 of their last 13 games and nearly caught the Bucks (38-44) atop the Midwest Division. As the playoff teams with the worst records in the West, the Bucks and Pistons squared off in a first round mini-series.

The Bucks were in their first season after “The Trade” of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and were young, hungry and very nearly a match for Lanier and the Pistons.  Lanier and Rowe dominated the Bucks inside (a familiar story for the ever-power-forward-challenged Bucks) while the Bucks guards, led by All-Star Brian Winters, bombed away from the outside (remember, no three point line yet in the NBA) and came within a shot of winning the series. Detroit won it in Milwaukee in game three, to what would become typical Bucks heart-stopping and heart-breaking effect.

The 1976 Pistons really have no business being on this list, but the 1976 Bucks do (see No. 11 below) so I included both. The Pistons went on to lose (4-2) in the second round to Rick Barry’s Golden State Warriors, the defending champs.  Lanier averaged 26.1 ppg and 12.7 rebounds in nine playoff games, Hall of Fame numbers from a highly skilled center who was perhaps the strongest big man in the league for many years. Power forward Rowe added an average of 15 pts and 8 boards on the Pistons run.

7. 2011 Indiana Pacers (37-45).  Another Jim O’Brien team, this one led by Danny Granger in the role of Paul Pierce, and playing the same ugly style of 2004.  This time coach O’Brien lasted to game 44 amid a lot of grumbling from GM Larry Bird that he was refusing to play his younger players, Tyler Hansbrough and rookie Paul George among them. Replacement coach Frank Vogel did more than mop up O’Brien’s mess, as the Pacers went 20-18 the rest of the way, edging out the injury-riddled Bucks (35-47) for the final spot in the East.

The Pacers were simply not a very good team until the arrival of David West and George Hill for the 2012 season, with Vogel as the coach. Dismissed in five games by Derrick Rose and the Bulls in Round 1 of the 2011 playoffs. Only made the playoffs because of the injury epidemic in Milwaukee.

8. 1979 New Jersey Nets (37-45).  From the land of the final season before the 3-point line was drawn on NBA courts comes the 1979 Nets, coached by Kevin Loughery and featuring the unstoppable mid-range post-up game of Bernard King.  King was young, in his second season, and top scoring honors went to guard John Williamson (22.2 ppg), a Net from the ABA days of Dr. J and one of the better long-range shooters of the time.

King and Williamson didn’t have much help beyond assorted journeymen like big man George Johnson (not to be confused with the George Johnson who played for the Bucks in 1978-79), the above mentioned Eric Money, acquired from Detroit, and aging zen power forward future Jordan-Shaq coach Phil Jackson in his 15th and almost-final playing season.  Jackson just didn’t want to quit (he finally would in 1980).  One has the impression that the guys on this 1979 Nets team partied down quite a bit (though not King, who was known for heavy drinking alone), and their record seems to reflects this.

Personalities noted, the Nets were a fast, fun team that locked down on defense (3rd in the league) and pushed the pace to 110 possessions a game, about 12 more than the Golden State Warriors of today. Unfortunately the Nets were the worst shooting team in the league and turned it over more than every team but Chicago. They would trade Money and guard Al Skinner to Philly in February for future shot-blocking Buck Harvey Catchings and former ABA star Ralph Simpson.

The Julius Erving-led Sixers swept the Nets out of the 1979 playoffs, 2-0, and the Nets began a full-scale rebuild. King’s knee problems began the following season, after he was traded in preseason to Utah along with rookie point guard Jim Boylan (yes, the same Jim Boylan who was Al McGuire’s favorite point guard, Scott Skiles’ favorite assistant, coach of the Bulls and Bucks and now an assistant with the Cavs) and John Gianelli for big man Rich Kelley. Gianelli had come over from the Bucks in a post-season trade for Catchings, along with a first round draft pick that would become Calvin Natt in 1979.

Confused?  Me too, especially about why Don Nelson traded that draft pick.  The Bucks had received the Pacers 1979 pick as compensation for the free agent signing of future Hall of Famer Alex English in 1978. The Pacers had a lousy season, so it turned out to be the No. 8 pick in the draft that gave the NBA Magic Johnson, Bill Cartwright, Sidney Moncrief, Vinnie Johnson, Bill Laimbeer, Mark Eaton, Natt and a few other notables).

Boylan would never play an NBA game.  Kelley would never develop into more than a journeyman center.  The Nets would slide to the bottom of the East, but with draft picks obtained by trading young Natt to Portland for Maurice Lucas (Lucas was the power forward Nellie and the Bucks should have targeted), they would draft Mike Gminksi (1980) and Bernard King’s brother Albert (1981).  Natt would become an All-Star in Denver of all places after being traded by Portland, along with Fat Lever and others, for Kiki Vandeweghe.  English would make the Hall of Fame in recognition of a long career scoring a mountain of points for run-and-gun coach Doug Moe in Denver. Bernard King would recover from knee trouble and alcoholism to star for the Golden State Warriors and New York Knicks and eventually join English in the Hall (2013).

Catchings would be the goat in the Bucks 7-game, one point, playoff loss to Philly in 1981 (3-16 shooting, 24 fouls and 7 turnovers in 109 mins, leading to jokes that he had never left his old team, the 76ers). Yet Harvey would continue play on 13 years in the NBA and block 1226 shots, which is quite a few of those.

9.  2008 Atlanta Hawks (37-45).  The first playoff appearance for the young Al Horford-Josh Smith Hawks (featuring Joe Johnson), and it was a good one, with the Hawks pushing the “Big Three” Celtics (the 2008 champs) to seven games in the first round. Horford was 21-years-old and Smith 22, and the Hawks were on the rise, something that can’t be said about nearly all of the teams on this list, 1986 Bulls excepted. The Hawks became one of ESPN’s “it” teams.

“It” was not to be.  Although some remarkable good health eventually resulted in a 53 win season in 2010, playoff success eluded the Hawks.  After beating the Celtics three times in the 2008, they couldn’t win a playoff game against anybody but the Andrew-Bogut-less 2010 Bucks, who were in the process of bum-rushing the Hawks out of the playoffs until game six when they forgot how to shoot.  The Hawks made it to the second round in 2011, were out in the first again in 2012, let Johnson go to Brooklyn rather than overpay him like the Nets did, and now 2013 is the end of the line for Smith (and Zaza Pachulia too) as the team looks to build a better roster around Horford.  Back in 2008, the future didn’t look anywhere near as dim as it would be for Atlanta.

10. 1980 Portland Trailblazers (38-44).   This was the season after the Blazers parted bitter ways with the center Bill Walton and his fractured feet and let him sign with the Clippers of San Diego, Walton’s hometown. The Clippers compensated the Blazers with players (Kermit Washington the most compelling) and two first round picks.  Walton sued the Trailblazers for medical malpractice. By the 1980 mid-season the Blazers had broken off other key pieces of their 1977 championship roster. Power forward Maurice Lucas, the star of the 1977 finals, was traded to New Jersey, along with two first round draft picks, for rookie forward  Calvin Natt, who became the Blazers leading scorer.  Natt was drafted with the first round pick the Bucks had sent to New Jersey along with John Gianelli in the Harvey Catchings trade.

Point guard Lionel Hollins (now coach of the Grizzlies Nets himself) was traded to Philadelphia, where he joined Maurice Cheeks in the Sixers backcourt and helped spark the Sixers run to the 1980 Finals (where they lost to the Lakers, featuring Magic Johnson’s sensational game six at center and everywhere else on the court for injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

The Blazers were left with an interesting mix of rookies and journeyman veterans, including a redemptive Washington (notorious for throwing the punch that almost killed the Rockets’ Rudy Tomjanovich in 1977) who played 80 games. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam would follow the team for the entire season and prologue, and publish The Breaks of the Game (1981), still considered the masterwork of pro basketball journalism, biography and history.

One of the more interesting characters was rookie forward Abdul Jeelani, a recent convert to Islam who grew up in Racine (as Gary Cole) and played college ball at UW-Parkside.  That’s right, Parkside in Kenosha, Wis., an NAIA school at the time. A long-armed 6’8″, Jeelani was precisely the type of productive, scoring bigger forward who would be a natural for an NBA roster today, earning a salary of $8 million a year or more.  But things were different in the mid-1970s. The available NBA jobs were fewer (rosters were cut to 11 players in 1977) and the money sweeter in Europe.  Jeelani had failed to make NBA rosters twice, gone on to play in Europe, and was back for a third try at age 25.  Despite the trimmed down roster, he made the team, and after a solid season in Portland with some high scoring flashes, Jeelani — much to the surprise of the Blazers, who wanted to keep him — was picked up by the Dallas Mavericks in the expansion draft.

After Dallas, expansion was halted for eight years as the NBA went to work with what it had in the new decade: 23 teams in a meaner, leaner league filled with often brilliant players, all searching for an audience in a slow economy. Attendance had fallen and TV ratings were very low; there were problems attracting advertisers, problems with national network (CBS) priorities and presentation; and a number of franchises found themselves struggling under the financial strain of the new order — free agency. But Bird and Magic had arrived, and the game itself was undergoing a creative renaissance sourced in teamwork and great passing, with a series of strong drafts growing the talent each season.  The 200-some players holding down NBA jobs coming out of the late 1970s would cut the diamond that Michael Jordan and the Dream Team marketed to the world.

Jeelani would be one of the 200 for only one season in Dallas, where he was one of only four players to remain on the team from training camp to the end of the season.  He scored the first bucket in Mavericks history, and got used to hearing chants of “Abdul” from the home fans. Gary Cole from Racine, Wis., had changed his religion and his name; encountered rejection; traveled the world; and returned to try again in the league that rejected him, making the cut during its lean recessionary times. And as a young follower of Islam, he became a fan favorite in Tom Landry and Roger Staubach’s good ol’ boy christian conservative Dallas.  That’s one heckuva story.  The only problem was Jeelani’s salary of $57,000, which was far easier to double in Europe than in the NBA. In Europe Jeelani was a star; in the NBA, he was a mid-level player who usually came off the bench, and economic times were still tough in 1981.   He would move on to play in Italy and Spain for the better part of the next decade.

The 1979 Blazers bowed out in the first round (2-1) to the Dennis Johnson-Gus Williams-Paul Silas-Jack Sikma Seattle Supersonics, the eventual champs.

11. 1976 Milwaukee Bucks (38-44).  First season after the Kareem trade, the young Bucks were led by All-Star forward Bobby Dandridge, great-shooting Brian Winters and center Elmore Smith, the latter two acquired in “The Trade” along with Junior Bridgeman and power forward David Meyers.  The Bucks, coached by Larry Costello, won the 1976 Midwest Division without Kareem, largely owing this to the Pistons early season injury troubles (see above). Kareem’s Lakers actually failed to make the playoffs despite having a better record (40-42) than both the Pistons and the Bucks.  In the divisional playoff format of 1976, the Lakers had to catch Phoenix to win the fifth and final seed in the West but lost four of six to the Suns in the regular season and fell two games short.

Not a good year for Kareem or the Midwest Division, obviously, but the playoffs redeemed Lanier’s Pistons.  Against Detroit in the first round, the Bucks opted to bomb away from the outside and, thanks to some phenomenal shooting, managed to steal game one and then leave fans hyperventilating in Games 2 and 3 with three point losses in each. Winters, a 1976 and 1978 All-Star, shot 63%, averaging 27.3 points per game in the series — without the aid of the 3-pointer.  Dandridge netted 22 per game on 49% shooting and guard Gary Brokaw shot 62.2% for 21 ppg. Improbably, given those shooting percentages, it wasn’t quite enough.

This was Costello’s last full season as Bucks coach. Don Nelson, who was busy helping the Celtics win the 1976 title in his final season as a player, joined Costello’s staff for the 1976-77 season, and the head coaching job fell in Nellie’s lap early on.  The Bucks kept the core of Winters, Bridgeman and Meyers, let Dandridge go to the Bullets in free agency (received cash compensation), and launched full-on into the “Green and Growing” rebuilding plan. Nellie and GM Wayne Embry traded Brokaw and Elmore Smith to Cleveland for Rowland Garrett and two first round picks, one in 1977 (Ernie Grunfeld) and one in 1978 (George Johnson).  They drafted Quinn Buckner and Alex English in 1976, then Nellie traded monster rebounding center Swen Nater (their 1973 draft pick, who had been playing in the ABA until the merger) to the Buffalo Braves for the No. 3 first round pick that would be used to draft forward Marques Johnson in 1977.  When Marques arrived the Bucks started winning and the rest, as they say, is history. those were the days to be a young Bucks fan. The Bucks became a perennial contender after drafting Sidney Moncrief in 1979 and acquiring Lanier from Detroit in 1980.

12. 1992 Miami Heat (38-44).   First playoff trip for the expansion heat. Glen Rice wasn’t a 50-40-90 shooter this season (the Bird-Dirk-Durant standard) but he wasn’t too far off at 47-39-84. Rice led the fledgling Heat with 22.3 ppg, getting help from center Rony Seikaly and rookie gunner Steve Smith. The Heat would try use those three as a base to build a winner; they would not succeed.  The Heat started winning when Pat Riley took over in 1995 and completely overhauled the roster, including the core three.  The 1992 Heat were coached by Kevin Loughery, same Loughery who coached the Nets in the 1970s and Jordan’s Bulls in 1986 (see Nos. 1 and 8 on this list). Swept in the first round by Jordan and the Bulls on their way to title No. 2.

13. 2013 Milwaukee Bucks (38-44).  What will history say about this Bucks team?  Their coach, Scott Skiles, quit/was let go 32 games into the season after putting his house up for sale and declining to sign a contract extension.  The interim coach, Jim Boylan (the same Jim Boylan who was included in that 1979 Bernard King trade) played his team fast and loose and continued to develop good, young big men (Larry Sanders, John Henson).  But the Bucks’ trio of guards shot too poorly overall and played too little defense down the stretch to avoid a first round series against the defending champs, the Heat.  The Bucks lost 15 of their last 21 games, and few expect Boylan back as coach (Boylan was fired after the Heat dismissed the Bucks from the playoffs in a 4-0 sweep).

There are worse teams on this “38 or less” playoffs list, to be sure (Jim O’Brien’s teams come to mind), and better teams too.  Three of them were coached by Kevin Loughery, so coaching quality is a factor.  Weirdly enough, Jim Boylan is a recurring character in this post, as is long forgotten point guard Eric Money. The common thread for these teams is that they were all in transition, most of them on the way down, not up or sideways.  Those sideways teams that stayed the course, such as the 1976 Pistons and the 1992 Heat would break up their teams within three years. It will happen this summer in Atlanta.  It may happen soon in Indiana, too, though not this season. History shows that mediocrity in the NBA plays itself out to sub-mediocrity, unless your Hall of Famer can stay healthy, and the Bucks don’t have one of those.  They don’t even have an Al Horford or a Glen Rice, not to say that Sanders can’t get better (this statement looks funny two years later).

The current situation says the Bucks won’t win in the long or short run with Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis and J.J. Redick’s disparate jump-shooting tendencies.  Whatever happens with the rest of the Bucks roster, the series against the Heat should be the last time we see the guard trio play for the Bucks.

Hawks grounded: They’ve “tuned out” coach Larry Drew, according to Atlanta sports columnist

And we in Bucksland think our team has issues …

The Atlanta Hawks’ self-imposed problems, the ones on display last April in the playoffs against the Bogut-less Bucks — the Hawks’ stand-around style of play, the schizophrenic focus, the haphazard, switch-heavy defense, the lack of size — have not gone away.

As the Hawks basically stood pat this summer (signing free agent Josh Powell?  Really?) while firing coach Mike Woodson and hiring Woodson assistant Larry Drew, those problems festered as the Hawks played the softest schedule in the East based on opponent strength.  Now they’re growing as the Hawks’ final 22 games include matchup after matchup against the league’s elite.

The Bulls blew out the Hawks in Atlanta Tuesday night, 114-81. Afterward, Atlanta Journal  Constitution sports columnist Mark Bradley declared it official:  The 40-31 Hawks, still in possession of the #5 playoff seed in the East, the Sixers on their heels, have “tuned out” coach Drew, probably at about the 60-game mark. (Read Bradley article HERE.)

They’ve won 40 games because they still have talent; they’ve lost 15 home games because they don’t care enough to apply that talent when application requires effort. Stop shooting their beloved jump shots? Start guarding somebody? Why bother?

Say it again: Fifteen home losses for a team that boasts two All-Stars, a third player of All-Star caliber and the league’s reigning sixth man of the year. Fifteen home losses, nine of them by double figures. The NBA’s worst team shouldn’t be getting hammered like this at home on such a regular basis, let alone one that has been to the playoffs three years running and will get there again this spring.

The Bulls blowout was reminiscent of the Bucks destruction of Atlanta back in November.  Challenge the Hawks, throw a sticky, physical defense in their grills, and they’re liable to quit on the game by halftime.

Since that game, of course, the 28-41 Bucks have had plenty of troubles of their own, but have played well enough in the last 10 games (6-4 with the Sacramento Kings on tap at the BC tonight) to satisfy that they haven’t tuned Scott Skiles out.  The ever short-handed Bucks, after pushing the Hawks to seven last April, have split four games with Atlanta this season.

The Bucks know the Hawks well, and picking apart Bradley’s basic description of the Hawks is old hat here at the Jinx:  Did the Hawks deserve two all-stars this season?  Is Josh Smith’s game really “All-Star caliber?”   Isn’t the Joe Johnson-centric offense rather elementary to guard half of the time?   Should anyone really be surprised that the Bulls, Heat and Lakers are thumping the Hawks?

But it’s more fun when Hawks fans are doing the picking apart.

The comments beneath the story from Atlanta readers range from,  “Why does Josh Smith’s shot selection stink?” … to “our All-Star is playing in New Orleans or New Jersey.”  Woe be the Hawks brass who passed on point guards Chris Paul and Deron Williams in the 2005 draft and selected with the #2 pick forward Marvin Williams, just turned 19 years old and with all of one season at North Carolina on his resume.

It’s still a bit shocking that the Bucks, with the #1 overall pick, actually considered taking Williams over Bogut, even for a minute.

Some of the most entertaining comments (from a Bucks perspective) are from the columnist, Bradley.  (Who does that under sports blogs at daily newspapers?   I’m convinced NBA fans in other cities have more fun than Bucks fans.)  Here’s Bradley’s most telling take:

Here’s the problem: Can’t trade Joe because he makes too much; can’t trade Horford because he’s the heart of the team; can’t trade Jamal because he’s going to be a free agent; can’t trade Marvin because who’d want him?

By process of elimination, the only real candidate for a trade is Josh Smith, and he’s one of the most talented players in the league.

Here was the take tonight from TNT’s Chris Webber on “Inside the NBA”:

The Hawks problems “started in training camp” with the same roster that, last season was “small and bad,” Webber said.  Coach Drew bears some responsibility for the bad part, but the roster problems were there when he took the job …  “We’ve been saying it since last year [in the playoffs] … They don’t have a big man.”

Suffice it to say that the Hawks are in store for a quick exit from the playoffs, probably at the hands of the Magic or the Heat, and will hope to detonate their core this summer and rebuild around Horford.   They might even get a big man worth playing and stop listing Horford as a center on the All-Star ballot.   Bogut and the Bulls’ Joakim Noah would approve.

And with the Hawks likely desperate for change this off-season, it’s one more reason for Bucks GM John Hammond to exercise more patience with their still-developing young core than they did last summer.

Lockout possibilities aside, does either team really have other realistic choices?

(I’ve always thought the Hawks blew it in the summer of 2009 when they didn’t really get in on the bidding for unrestricted FA Andre Miller, took a pass on Ramon Sessions and resigned Mike Bibby, who translated via trade into Kirk Hinrich , no savior, no.  How good would Sessions’ speed and penetration-first game look on the Hawks?  Better than what they look like now.

But they’re still missing a big man in a league where the good ones aren’t exactly available for trades, even if the bait is Josh Smith.  Sam Dalembert, anyone?  Tyson Chandler?  Nazr Mohammed?  Nenad Krstic?  Kurt Thomas?  Joel Przybilla?  Those are the top unrestricted free agent centers this summer, the brighter side of Kwame Brown and Erick Dampier, et. al.  Now that I’m thinking about it, the Bucks could use a center, too, to back up Bogut.)

Recalling bitter rivalries long past: A Sixers, Celtics, Bucks round-robin with playoff implications

Springtime is on the way in Milwaukee.  The snows are melting a dirty trickle in the rain.  The chartered buses are revved up for the state high school sectionals.  March Madness is in the air.  And the Bucks playoff seeding rests (in part) on how well they fare in games against the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics.

Celtics-Sixers, Sixers-Bucks, Bucks-Celtics — a weekend round-robin that began tonight in Philly — harkens (albeit vaguely) back to the NBA’s Golden Age when Larry Bird‘s Celtics, Sidney Moncrief‘s Bucks and Dr. J‘s Sixers waged battle season after season for home court advantage in the Eastern Conference.

To be a fan of coach Don Nelson’s Bucks was to worry about your team’s health every spring and fret over the strength of the opposition, the names Bird, Erving, Bobby Jones, McHale, Moses muttered under the breath in curses.  Bucks fans cringed at the inevitable playoff disappointment against arguably the two best teams ever assembled in the NBA.  But the Bucks in those days had Moncrief and Marques Johnson and Bob Lanier, and later Moncrief and Terry Cummings and Paul Pressey.  There was always hope.

The stakes aren’t so high for our Bucks these days.  They are a disappointing 25-38, a far cry from the Bucks teams that chased 60-win seasons during Moncrief’s prime.  Yet the 2011 Bucks find themselves gaining ground in the mad stumble for the 8th and final playoff spot in the East, one game out as they face the Sixers Saturday at the BC and go to Boston Sunday to meet the Celtics.

The Celtics are hanging on to the top seed in the East with Derrick Rose’s Bulls hot on their heels.  The Sixers are in 7th place, out of the Bucks reach and looking to move up a rung or two on the East playoff ladder.

This Philly-Boston weekend is critical for Bucks as they work to establish some late consistency and salvage the season.

“The big test for us is Philly (on Saturday),” Bucks center Andrew Bogut noted after the Bucks ran away from the last place Cleveland Cavs on Wednesday for a rare easy victory.  “We never play well against Philly, and they’re having a great year. I think Philly is our test.”

Eighth will have to do for Bogut and the Bucks this season.

And, no, the names Bogut, Garnett and Brand don’t resonate like those of Erving, Bird and Moncrief, who will be on hand Saturday providing color commentary for the Bucks’ FSN broadcast.

But spring is almost here in Wisconsin, and this will have to do.

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Eighth was good enough for the Chicago Bulls in 1986, Michael Jordan‘s second NBA season, the year he missed 64 games with a broken left foot.  It will be good enough for Brandon Jennings in his sophomore NBA season, a year in which he, too, broke his left foot.

Jordan’s 1986 Bulls, also featuring rookie Charles Oakley and Orlando Woolridge in his second season, are worth mentioning here because whoever grabs the 8th seed in the East this season will surely make the playoffs with one of the worst records in recent memory.

The worst NBA playoff record, post-ABA merger, belonged to the 1986 Bulls, who won just 30 games playing in arguably the toughest conference that the NBA had ever put on the nation’s courts — the Eastern Conference of the mid-1980’s.

How good was the 11-team East in 1986?  The young Bulls went 3-15 against the Celtics, Sixers and Bucks.  There were Dominique Wilkins‘ Hawks and Isaiah Thomas‘ Pistons to contend with, too, and the Bulls were just 3-9 against them.

The Western Conference champions, the Twin Towers Houston Rockets starring 7-footers Hakeem Olajawon and Ralph Sampson, would fall in six games to the Celtics in the 1986 NBA Finals.  The Rockets, with the luxury of playing in the West, finished 51-31 (#2 in the West behind the Lakers) but won just 3 of their 10 games against the Beasts of the East.  The Rockets would very likely have finished 6th in the East, and no better than 5th.

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Playoff atmosphere in Philly. The Sixers kicked off the Boston-Philly-Milwaukee round-robin by holding off the Celtics, 89-86, snapping a seven-game home losing streak to the Celtics.  Center Spencer Hawes, forward Elton Brand and swingman Andre Iguodala led a balanced Sixer attack that ended with five players in double figures.   The Celtics were led by Jeff Green (18 pts) and Nenad Krstic (16 and 15 boards)?

No, these are not the Celtics and Sixers of the great Bird and Dr. J rivalry, but the Wachovia Center crowd roared playoff intensity nonetheless as Iguodala waltzed through the lane for the game-clinching layup.

Ray Allen had perhaps his worst game this season, scoring only 5 points on 2-11 shooting. The Celtics have lost two in a row.

The Sixers are playing their best ball since Allen Iverson’s heyday for coach Doug Collins, and moved to within a half game of the Knicks for 6th place and three games back of the Hawks in 5th.

The Hawks looked downright sick losing by 18 to the Carlos Boozer-less Bulls in Chicago.  “All-Star” Al Horford contributed 6 points and 7 rebounds in the loss.  Did I mention that the Bulls power forward, Carlos Boozer, didn’t play?

I watched Hawks-Bulls a second time, late night.  The Hawks simply turned dumb and selfish when faced with the in-your-face Bulls defense, just as they do when playing the Bucks.  They don’t like being challenged, and, even though Kirk Hinrich just joined the team, they looked completely lost when he wasn’t on the court.

They switched and had bigs guarding Derrick Rose in the 3rd quarter, same way the Mike Woodson Hawks of last season played Brandon Jennings.  That was a miserable failure.  Luol Deng got hot, and the Hawks had no one to guard him.  Josh Smith and Joe Johnson made horrible decisions on offense, repeatedly, Al Horford disappeared, and Jamaal Crawford and Kirk Hinrich seemed like the only guys interested in playing the game.

Zaza Pachulia was, as usual, a useless hack who isn’t too effective when a stronger player (Kurt Thomas) is matched up against him.

It was games 3, 4, and 5 last May all over again, with the Bulls dominating like the Bucks never could have without Bogut.   Bucks play the Hawks in Atlanta Tuesday, and that game looks very winnable.

Is 2011 the year Andrew Bogut finally makes the NBA All-Star team?

Last year he was snubbed.  First by the Eastern conference coaches, some of them anyway, content to name Hawks big forward Al Horford as the East’s reserve center.  Then Commissioner David Stern took his turn, choosing the Knicks’ David Lee over Bogut to replace injured Kevin Garnett, a nod to New York the media market as much as it was to Lee’s scoring and rebounding numbers.

Milwaukee’s just too damn small.  If Bogut was outplaying Lee and scoring 22 on a Friday night in November, nobody noticed.   If All-Star is about winning, the Knicks hadn’t, and still haven’t taken a game against the Bucks since March of 2009.

The Bucks did win — 30 of their last 43 games last season and a run to a seven-game series against the Hawks.  They were 40-29 with Bogut in the lineup in 2010, before his horrific fall last March, resulting in a broken, mangled arm and the end of Bogut’s best season as a pro.

The scoring was there, above average if not All-Star:  15.9 pts per game on 52 % shooting.

The defense, for those who care about defense, was superlative.  Bogut last season led the NBA in Defensive Plays, with 3.82 blocked shots, steals and charges taken per game.  He was second to Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard in blocked shots (2.5 per game) and Defensive Rating (98.1 team points allowed per 100 possessions).

Add 10.2 rebounds and it was good enough for the All-NBA 3rd Team.

This season, Bogut again leads the NBA in Defensive Plays with a low estimate of 3.7 per game (the charges taken not accounted for), leads the NBA in shot blocking (2.8 bpg) and is 6th in Defensive Rating.  Is it enough to get him to the All-Star game?

His 13.4 points per game say “no” — but his 11.7 rebounds per game (5th in the NBA) say, “yes.”

But those are merely the stats.  Bogut is not only the anchor of the Bucks defense but the heart and soul of a team that has in 2011 been ravaged by injuries while playing the most difficult schedule in the NBA, based on opponent record.   They’ve won 19, lost 27 but are just a half game out of a playoff spot in the East and closing, looking up at teams that have played much softer schedules.  Bogut is a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.

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As the NBA reached the late January halfway mark and prepared to unveil the 2011 All-Star starters, the Bucks turned in a horrendous 2nd quarter in Chicago, were never really in the game afterward and found themselves at their lowest point, a 16-26 record, 13.5 games behind the Bulls.  They desperately needed to make a statement that their 2011 season wasn’t over, and they made it the following night in Milwaukee, beating the Atlanta Hawks, 98-90.

There were no earth shattering, SportsCenter highlight dunks from Bogut in the victory, but he hauled in 14 rebounds and took a charge and blocked a shot that turned the momentum the Bucks way at the end of the second quarter.  In the 4th, when the game was on the line, the Bucks limited the Hawks to 1 for 14 shooting for 9 minutes and held them to 15 points in the quarter.  The 2nd quarter block and ensuing fast break would find its place on the NBA highlight reels for the week, a fitting statement for the defense-first season Bogut has had.

Defense wins games, and a center’s job is to anchor the defense and control the traffic in the paint.  Among NBA centers, Bogut has only defensive rival:  the Magic’s Howard, of course, perennial All-Star and the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year.  Honors aside, Howard and Bogut have a lot in common:  They are true centers in a league that has drifted to the 3-point line, and they are established defensive forces on the basketball court.

Unfortunately, the matter of “what’s a center?” is not resolved in the All-Star selection system.  Horford and other “centers” such as Lee, Andrea Bargnani and Marcus Camby, log most of their minutes at power forward, especially when matched up against a Bogut or Howard.  The coaches must name one reserve center on the conference All-Star teams, and, as evidenced by last season’s vote for Horford, the reserve center doesn’t have to be a full time center.

“[Bogut]’s probably more of a true center than a lot of the other guys that people have talked about at that position,” said Howard’s coach, Stan Van Gundy, last season after Bogut was snubbed.  “Most of them are power forwards playing up a position, while he’s like Dwight, more of a true center.  I don’t think there’s any question he’s an all-star caliber guy. But when you’re picking 24 guys out of 400 in the league, it gets difficult.”

There is competition for the East’s All-Star reserve spot.  Shaquille O’Neal, still “The Diesel” in limited minutes for the East-leading Celtics, was second in fan voting, due largely to both the largess of Shaq and the Celtics’ East-leading record.  Bulls center Joakim Noah, third in the fan voting, was off to a strong start with the Bulls before a broken hand sidelined him until after the All-Star break.

Roy Hibbert was scoring 16 points per game for the Pacers early in the season but has tapered off.  Brook Lopez of the Nets is scoring 18+ points per game, but the Nets are losing and Lopez can’t seem to grab a rebound (only 6 per game, half of Bogut and Howard’s haul).  The Raptors Andrea Bargnani scores 21.4 pts per game but spends an awful lot of time far outside the paint — he’s actually list in most places as a forward.

That leaves Bogut, 4th in fan voting, his scoring down (12.9 ppg) this season as he slowly makes his way back to 100% after last season’s injury.  Bogut, whose Bucks aren’t winning as much as most preseason prognosticators had predicted.  Bogut, the 3rd Team All-NBA center after last season, the 11th leading vote getter in the All-NBA balloting.

Bogut, leading the league in blocked shots and Defensive Plays, and one of the league’s top 5 rebounders.  Howard, of course, is top 5 in those categories, and is an All-Star.  He’ll start the 2011 game at center.

Not to say that Horford does not deserve All-Star recognition (he does, moreso than any other Hawk), but Horford is not in the top 10 in any of those categories.  But then, Al Horford is not a center.

In the NBA, circa 2011, Andrew Bogut is a center.  As a center plying his trade in the Eastern Conference, he’s earned the honor of backing up Dwight Howard at the 2011 All-Star game.

Halfway Report: Grizzlies loss a microcosm of season, in miniature

The Bucks stumbled to the halfway point of the NBA schedule with a 16-25 record, losing to the Grizzlies 94-81 Saturday night at the BC in a style Bucks fans have become accustomed to this season.  Analyze the game, and it suffices pretty well as an encapsulation of the season.

1) Andrew Bogut, ailing all season with back issues, a mysterious virus and his recovering right paw, was less than superlative.  He was outplayed by Marc Gasol, who recorded his first 20-10 game of the season (24 points, 16 rebs).  This was the type of performance by Bogut that has made this season a trial for the Bucks, and the type of loss that may keep him off the 2011 All-Star team.  Bogut had 14 pts, 9 rebs, 3 blks, 2 stls but wasn’t the center making competent decisions on the floor. That center was Gasol.

“It was an ugly basketball game for most of the night and they outplayed us. Gasol, he killed me tonight and he had a lot of easy baskets and post moves. Their bigs really played well.”  – Bogut after the game.

“Ugly basketball game” might have been a reference to the terrible refereeing.  The whistle-blowers were bad, even by NBA standards.  An inexplicable 2nd foul call on Bogut three minutes into the game shackled him for most of the first half.   One highly questionable and two “how-much-does-the-zebra-have-on-this-one?” calls against the Bucks in the 3rd quarter changed the game and pushed the Griz out to a 59-46 lead.  But this is supposed to be a microcosm game for the season. No referee beefs allowed, unless it’s to say that the Bucks have, at times, been a hard luck team.

2) Starting guard John Salmons, the Bucks second leading active scorer, missed his 2nd game due to a hip problem.  The Bucks lead the NBA in starter games missed, even if you don’t count Drew Gooden as a legitimate starter.  They played their 17th game without injured Brandon Jennings is recovering from surgery on a bone fracture in his left foot and may return this week.  The Bucks are 6-11 without their point guard.  They need him.  Earl Boykins really likes to dribble around and dribble around and shoot.

3) The Bucks guards shot 12 out of 47 from the floor, 25.5 percent.  Everybody else shot 22 of 43 – 51.2% – and were good enough to beat the Grizzlies.  Is it too late to send Keyon Dooling back to free agency?   Carlos Delfino played too much in his second game back from head injuries, and shot too much. Chris Douglas-Roberts started the game but was benched after the first quarter.

4) Ersan Ilyasova was yanked by Skiles in the third quarter and did not return to the game.  Why?  He was burned twice by shaky officiating on two possessions, one against Gasol after he and Bogut switched; the other on a shoulder-first move by Zach Randolph in the post.  Add this Grizzlies loss to the long line of “Ersanity Factor” games, with this one emphasizing the illogic of Skiles’ yanks and how they hurt his team.

Ilyasova and Randolph were having a good battle, with Ilyasova playing 16 mins in the first half, some of it at center when Bogut got hit with foul trouble.  The halftime score was 43-40 Grizzlies.  The Bucks were behind, not because Randolph was having a game — he wasn’t.  Gasol was.  The Bucks guards were both shot-happy and bad.  Ilyasova and Corey Maggette, along with Bogut, seemed to have matters under control in the 3rd but for the refs dictating the game.  Skiles first pulled Ilyasova, then sat Maggette down.  With his starting forwards on the bench, the Bucks quickly found themselves down by 18, 72-54.

When the Bucks by mid-4th quarter pulled to within four against the Grizzlies bench, it seemed the ideal time for Skiles go back to Bogut and his starting forwards.  Most coaches would have, and trusted them to finish a win at home.  But not Skiles, who left the reserves on the court too long and didn’t call Ilyasova off the bench at all.

Ilyasova’s critics will say that he’s inconsistent (code for “his shots don’t always go in the basket”), and this has justified Skiles’ short leash. Earlier in the season, Skiles was pulling Ersan after consecutive misses.   Now it seems the coach will yank him even when he isn’t taking shots.  Ersan on Saturday was three for five from the floor, six points, and had locked into his matchup against Randolph, which — if nothing else, was adding drama to the game that Skiles didn’t seem to appreciate.

Ersan, after the Grizzlies game, was tied for 18th with Dwyane Wade and David West in NBA defensive rating at 100.9 points allowed per 100 possessions played.  They’re in a group of five Top 20 defenders rated between 100 to 1oo.9 that also includes Tyson Chandler (100.5) and Lebron James (1oo.8).

With the loss, the Bucks record fell to 6-16 in games where Skiles has played Ilyasova fewer than 24 minutes.  Prior to Saturday’s loss, the most previous example of Skiles not playing Ilyasova in the 4th quarter was the Bucks’ lethargic loss in Houston.  The Bucks are 10-9 when Ilyasova plays 24+ minutes.

5. The Packers kick it off against the Bears at 2 pm this afternoon, and NBA league pass is free this weekend.  Time for me to stop worrying about the Bucks and Scott Skiles for at least a few hours.

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The Atlanta Hawks bounced back in Charlotte from their 100-59 humiliation to CP3 and the Hornets Friday.  Mike Bibby sparked the 3rd quarter offensive bust-out that made the difference in the game.  Joe Johnson was sharp (32 points) after shooting 1 for 16 against N’Awlins.  It was all very unspectacular and surprisingly ho-hum.  With Al Horford out nursing an ankle sprain, the grind-out, Eastern Conference style of the game went more the way of the Hawks, and  Charlotte didn’t put up much resistance after Bibby and Johnson’s offensive burst in the 3rd.  A team can’t let the Hawks feel good about themselves for any length of time, or their jumpers begin to fall like rain from all over the gym.  The ‘Cats understand this defensively, knowing both sides of the schizophrenic Hawks, and usually give the Hawks more trouble than they can handle in Carolina.  If only the ‘Cats offense would cooperate.

Stephen Jackson was horrible for the fifth game in a row, digging a steep production crater on the Bobcats’ wing.  It seems that ESPN’s Jackson to Dallas or Chicago trade campaigns are out to kill perceptions of Jackson as a reliable scorer.  It’s not that the extra attention and interest in Jackson has caused a slump — these slumps of his are natural.  The seven for 17 shooting guard who makes 2 of 6 threes looks good on paper, but he doesn’t shoot seven for 17 every game — the bad streaks are horrendous, as Jackson and the Bobcats know well.

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The Knicks want two All-Stars, Amar’e Stoudemire and Raymond Felton.  Saturday in Oklahoma City, Felton played like he wanted it, too, and was out to create the highlight plays that could help get him to Los Angeles next month.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t good for Felton’s teammates, who received all of one dime from their point guard in the second half.  The highlight play never materialized as Felton, possession after possession late in the 4th and went one on one against Russell Westbrook.  He hit one shot — a tough step-back, fallaway jumper with Westbrook in his face. The rest rimmed out, one drive drawing nothing but air.  The Thunder inched closer until they had the ball and a tie, with six seconds left on the clock after the Felton’s final exercise in one-on-one futility.  Kevin Durant calmly dropped a three-pointer from the far wing at the buzzer to win 101-98.

Kevin Durant (30 pts in the game) is an All-Star.  Raymond Felton?  Ten points, 5-for-16 shooting, seven assists … not an All-Star.  Ray’s not doing anything differently this season except shooting more, making a lower percentage and playing in New York.  If his assists are up (and they are with the Knicks), remember that last season he was a Bobcat.  Felton’s 2011 teammates, Amar’e Stoudemire for example, know a thing or two about scoring off a pass.

The Knicks loss dropped their record to 22-21, just five games ahead of the 10th place Bucks in the Eastern Conference.  The Knicks are in 6th and would play the Bulls if the playoffs started today.  … There’s nothing odd or controversial about the Knicks fall to the .500 zone of NBA mediocrity. The Knicks schedule has begun to even out after they feasted on NBA patsies like the Raptors and Wizards.  While the Bucks are 1-0 against the Wiz and haven’t played the Raptors, the Knicks are 5-0 against those Eastern Conference powerhouses.

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QUOTE OF THE WEEK:

“It’s not fun playing aggressive and really trying to apply some energy, and get penalized for it. A lot of guys are playing very, very physical toward me. I’m starting to get injured a lot. My shoulders, arms, hands are starting to get banged up a lot. It’s a little frustrating.”

Amar’e Stoudemire, after the Spurs beat him up on their way to a 101-92 win in San Antonio Friday.  Typical Amar’e.  Sounds like what he said after Andrew Bogut and the Bucks blew the Knicks out in Milwaukee earlier this season.  He accused Bogut of cracking him with an elbow under instructions from Scott Skiles to “retaliate” against him for pushing Bogut in the back on a breakaway last March and causing the momentum that caused the fall that mangled Bogut’s arm and finished his 2011 season.  “What play is he talking about” Bogut wondered.

The Knicks loss to the Thunder the next night was their 6th straight.

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Pacers vs. Nuggets: What a brawl a game against the Denver Nuggets is.  The Pacers and Tyler Hansbrough — who shot a lot for a guy who’s averaging 7.2 pts a game — weren’t quite ready for it, though they worked hard to keep it relatively close even as Carmelo Anthony was raining six three pointers on them in the 3rd quarter

Ty-bro, by the way, had a career high 27 in this one, which they needed to keep the score close because Danny Granger didn’t show up, then left the game with a sprained ankle. I don’t think Danny’s going to the All-Star game this year.  … The Ty-Bro show was by design, obviously.  The Nuggets frontline is about the same 6’8″- 6’9″, same limited wingspan, and, like Ty-bro, they’re strong, only wider and closer to the floor.  “Get that shit outta here,” Keyon Martin shouted as he blocked a Ty-bro post move in the 3rd quarter.  But Ty-Bro kept coming at the Nuggets and had his midrange game on target.

Martin’s lost a few steps in recent years but he’s still full of intimidation and noise, if not much else. 25 mins — 4 pts, 4 rebs would have Bucks fans demanding that Skiles yank the power forward.

There wasn’t much the Pacers, who played the night before in Portland, could do in this Sunday night game but collect the ball out of the net while Carmelo and friends were having far too much fun on their home court.  But down 15 at the end of the 3rd, the Pacers were still D-ing up with intensity, trying to stay in the game.  But they couldn’t get any closer against J.R. Smith, Al Harrington and the Nuggets bench.

The Pacers are now 16-25, tied with the Bucks, who’ve beat their Central Division rivals twice this season. In many statistical measures, the Pacers and the Bucks come out fairly even — they’ve both been a bit unlucky, based on what they’re scoring and giving up.  The Pacers defense is in the Top 10, while they play a pace quicker than the Bucks, but they’re still look like a team growing.  The Bucks 16-25 comes with a roster-full of injury problems against the toughest schedule of any Eastern Conference team.

Only the Mavs have played a slightly tougher schedule than the Bucks, based on opponent record.

The lights are back on in snowbound Georgia, where the Atlanta Hawks are better weather than the Chicago Bulls

Georgia EMC power this evening finally turned the lights back on in the Atlanta area, where the Bucks would do well to think about the snow that’s seized the city instead of the Chicago Bulls.

The Bulls stomped Detroit tonight, 95-82, pushing their record to 25-12 and dumping the Bucks (14-21) to 10 games behind the lead in the Central Division with 47 left to play.  Ten games out, and Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah hardly know each other on the basketball court.

The Bulls surprisingly strong start despite injuries to their stars, the gaudy 17-3 Chicago home record and gritty wins like Saturday’s defeat of the KG-less Celtics are a cold damper on whatever solace the Bucks may take from having played by far the toughest schedule in the NBA, based on opponent record. Barring a season-ending injury to Derrick Rose, the Bucks might as well forget that many preseason prognosticators favored them to win the Central.

But the Bucks are far away from Chicago, where four inches of snow wouldn’t shut down the city or threaten to stop a basketball game.  They’re in Atlanta, where the Hawks and their 25-14 record look as daunting as the Bulls but, unlike the snow on the ground, looks can be deceiving.

Yes, the Hawks are right behind the Bulls, 8.5 games ahead of the Bucks in the standings — but those 14 losses have come against the softest schedule in the Eastern Conference.  This becomes then pivotal game for the Bucks (if it’s played).  Beat the Hawks and the Bucks are six games back of Atlanta on the loss side, knowing that they’ve put the toughest schedule in the NBA behind them and that the Hawks have the toughest schedule in the East ahead.

Lose in Atlanta and the Bucks fall to eight games back of the Hawks on the loss side, two steps closer to forgetting about where they are in the standings relative to the Hawks and two steps closer to it not mattering when the snow melts.

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The Hawks were blown off the court by the Bucks the last time the teams met in Atlanta (Nov. 10) which raised some questions about whether the Hawks realized that they were playing the Bucks, the team that, without its All-Pro center, nearly pushed them over in the 2010 playoffs.

The Bucks were led in that early season game by Ersan Ilyasova (17 pts) and Corey Maggette (20 pts), who took advantage of Atlanta’s weak second unit and helped turn a 22-9 Bucks deficit into a 54-40 Bucks lead at half.  That’s a 45-18 run over 16 minutes, during which Atlanta’s infamously shaky psyche crumbled.

The Hawks are coach Larry Drew’s now, but in that game seemed the same old Hawks they were under Mike Woodson, fighting the demons of selfishness and hair-brained focus that made them playoff pushovers in 2009 and 2010.

The rematch Dec. 27 in Milwaukee was, in comparison, a study in contrasts.  Instead of being stifled by the Bucks defense and general aggression, the Hawks bench caught fire, hitting a barrage of jump shots (Jamal Crawford, Marvin Williams, Maurice Evans and  Jeff Teague shot a combined 15 of 23 — 15 of 23! — for 40 pts) that left the Bucks visibly disoriented (“only the Portland Trailblazers are allowed to do that to us!”)

The Bucks of course were doing their best to lead the league in bad shooting and went in at half down 57-42.  In the 3rd quarter, the never-say-die Bucks clawed the lead down to six, but the Hawks were feeling too good about themselves to let the Bucks get any closer.

The Hawks are tough to beat when they’re feeling good about themselves. The trick, as Dwight Howard and the Magic have figured out, is to never let the Hawks feel very good about anything.

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That 95-80 loss to the Hawks two weeks ago was yet another game in which, without injured point guard Brandon Jennings, Andrew Bogut struggled to generate efficient offense in the post.  While Bogut was grappling with Hawks center Jason Collins, Hawks power forward Al Horford (no, he’s not a center) shot 9 of 15 and led the Hawks with 18 points. Bogut was 7 of 19 and finished with 14.

Bogut’s low scoring output has been a problem for the Bucks since the first half of the Lakers game Dec. 21 when Bogut overpowered the Lakers and Pau Gasol for easy bucket after easy bucket. Since then, they’ve played about 8 straight games in a hole that about 70% offensive efficiency from Bogut naturally puts them in.  In the overtime loss to the Heat Friday, Bogut shot 4 of 17 from the field.

Bogut also grabbed a career high 27 rebounds against Miami and anchored a hellacious second half defensive front that would have crushed any team but the Heat, but the point here is that Bucks center can make things a lot easier for his team by simply making half of his shots.  He hasn’t done this for six straight games (Bogut missed the Bucks game in New Jersey Saturday with a virus of undisclosed variety).

What does all this set up for game three of this growing Eastern Conference rivalry?  Given the polar opposites of the first two games, it’s anybody’s guess.  Ilyasova is a starter now.  Marvin Williams almost never shoots six for nine.  Chris Douglas-Roberts, who missed the first Bucks-Hawks game and was a non-factor in the second, happens to be the hottest player on either team, scoring 30 against the Heat and 24 on Saturday against his former team, the Nets, on his birthday.

Right now the Bucks are feeling pretty good about themselves (despite the 14-21 record) after battling into OT with the Heat Friday and blowing out the Nets in New Jersey Saturday.  After playing Miami, Orlando and Miami again in four days last week, the Bucks have to feel pretty good every game that isn’t played against guys wearing Heat or Magic uniforms.

If the Hawks are a paper tiger with a good record built against a weak schedule, there’s no better time than tonight for the Bucks to prove it.

Bucks vs. Bulls: Best of times, worst of times for Andrew Bogut and the beleaguered Bucks

After getting all up in the Lakers business by blowing the champs out by 19 last week in Los Angeles, they’ve followed it up with a disappointing stinker at home against a playoff rival their fans hold no love — and now head down I-94 to play their actual rivals, the Central Division leading Chicago Bulls, without injured point guard Brandon Jennings.

These are the worst of times for the Milwaukee Bucks.  Yet there may be no better times for the Milwaukee Bucks, a team that — despite never suiting up a full squad — has not yet backed down from a challenge when it realizes they’re facing one.  Ask the Lakers, the Mavs, the Celtics, the Spurs, the Jazz and the Heat.

Unfortunately, the Bucks haven’t been good when they don’t necessarily feel like they’ve got a challenge on their hands.  They don’t respect the Hawks, so it seems, not when they’re playing them with center Andrew Bogut.  After humbling the Hawks by taking them to seven games without Bogut last April in the playoffs, the Bucks stuffed the Hawks and their new coach, Larry Drew, in Atlanta in November.

Same old mentally challenged Hawks, not used to adversity, bad on the road, flinching when the Bucks flexed their muscles.   The worst opponent for the Bucks playing at home before a Bulls game.  The 15-point loss was almost predictable — almost.  Predictability yet eludes the Bucks.

The Bulls have problems of their own — center Joakim Noah‘s broken right hand will be in a cast for at least another month.  Bogut is healthy, generally playing his best basketball since his season-ending injury last season and will be guarded by the Kurt Thomas, Bogut’s backup last season.  The Bucks will have an interesting time chasing Derrick Rose without Brandon Jennings’ rare ability to stay in front of the Bulls point guard, but these are the best of times for the Bucks in the paint against the Bulls, despite new Bull Carlos Boozer.

Bucks 6th man Corey Maggette looked more out-of-sync than his out-of-sync teammates did against the Hawks, a sign that the Bucks on-court chemistry with its new additions is still a work in progress.  The worst of times.

But Maggette’s hasn’t been the “bad porn” player for the Bucks that he’s was with the Warriors and the Clippers, when he went through the motions, selfishly got his points and didn’t seem to care who was winning the game.  He’s been determined to make this 6th man thing work in Milwaukee, he’s a tough matchup for the Bulls and he’s due for a big game.  The best of times.

Diddo for Bogut, forwards Ersan Ilyasova, Luc Mbah a Moute and Chris Douglas-Roberts, minus the chemistry question and the bad porn.

Diddo for Bogut, forwards Ersan Ilyasova, Luc Mbah a Moute and Chris Douglas-Roberts, minus the chemistry question and the bad porn.

Only the Dallas Mavs and the Denver Nuggets have played a tougher schedule than the Bucks, according to today’s Strength of Schedule rankings.  The best of times for now that it’s behind them.

Over the next ten days the Bucks schedule gets tougher with the Mavs, two against Lebron, D-Wade and the Heat, and the the Magic, the Hawks again and the Spurs.  The worst of times.

The Bucks are playing the Bulls, coach Scott Skiles’ old team, against whom they won three games from last season and let the fourth slip away.  The best of times.

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Hawks power forward Al Horford had an efficient and workman-like 18 pts and 12 rebs Monday against the Bucks, possibly solidifying an All-Star vote from Bucks coach Scott Skiles.  Yes, power forward Al Horford — he didn’t start the game on Bogut, who spent much of his 40+ minutes on the court guarded by 7-foot center Jason Collins.

Yet this was a startling development for Bucks broadcasters Jim Paschke and Jon McGlocklin, repeatedly hyped the Bogut-Horford matchup as a battle for the East’s backup center slot behind Dwight Howard.  When Bogut opened the game by taking Collins baseline for a layup, Paschke identified Collins as “[pause as he was about to say Horford then noticed that Horford wasn’t gaurding Bogut] um … the big man guarding [Bogut].”  The charade continued for the rest of the game, with neither Paschke or McGlocklin — who work for the Bucks — bothering to correct the “Al Horford – center” misperception.

It’s not as though an inefficient 14 points on 7-19 shots is going to get Bogut to Los Angeles in February, but is it any wonder that events in the East conspired last season to deny Bogut his first All-Star appearance?  Is anybody working in the Bucks P.R. department?

At least TNT analysts Kevin McHale and Charles Barkley (“he’s undersized;” “I still don’t think he’s a center;” “his midrange jumper has made Horford one of the better power forwards;” etc.) this season (and last) have paid attention to what position Horford actually plays.  So does Atlanta coach Drew, obviously.  One has to assume that the rest of the East coaches are doing the same.

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“The scary thing is, maybe they were trying.”

There, somebody finally said it.  “They” are the Los Angeles Lakers, losers at home to first the Bucks (by 19) on Tuesday and the Miami Heat on Christmas Day.  The scary realization from the Lakers perspective is that there was very little difference in their energy, focus and commitment last week against the Bucks and Heat.

Of course, you had to be watching the Lakers’ games against both the Bucks and the Heat to realize it.  L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke did, and wrote it. The Lakers were playing hard last week.  They were trying.  All-Star center-forward Pau Gasol was simply outplayed by Bogut and Chris Bosh.  Andrew Bynum isn’t anywhere close to 100%.  Some of the other Lakers (Derrick Fisher, Ron Artest, Steve Blake) don’t look like they’re up for a third championship run.

Dogged in Denver and notes from around the NBA

An agonizing game last night in Denver, as the Bucks blew an opportunity to steal a win before Andrew Bogut’s expected return Saturday vs. Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic.  This was a foul marred game in which some of the things that had been going wrong for the Bucks went right, and things that seemed to be going right were sometimes wrong.

John Salmons hit two threes to get the Bucks off to a good start and finally appeared to be coming around, scoring 21 pts on 7-15 shooting while playing tough D for 36 mins.  That’s the kind of effort the Bucks have needed from Salmons all season.

Yet Luc Mbah a Moute — the Bucks best defender and most reliable player this season — was hit with early fouls guarding Carmelo Anthony and seemed to disappear.

Larry Sanders blocked 8 shots – 8 SHOTS!!!  And scored 14 pts and grabbed 10 rebounds.

Yet Ersan Ilyasova, who had been stellar in every other game in which he’s played 25+ minutes, couldn’t get his jumper straight in Denver, missing some wide open looks that could have kept the Bucks in striking distance.   Ersan scored 7 points in 40 mins – not nearly enough.  Not being greedy here but a timely 3-pointer, a garbage bucket, a drawn foul — the Bucks needed Ersan in double figures when it counted.  This earned Ersan “Stiff of the night” honors from the Nuggets blogger at the Denver Stiffs — despite his 9 boards, good D and tough battle with Al Harrington and Shelden Williams.  Not sure the Denver fans know good D when they see it.  But it was that kind of night.

Corey Maggette was turning in one of his best games as a Buck (17 pts on 8 shots, 1o free throws) …. until about 8 minutes left in the 4th quarter when he blew up two straight Bucks possessions by killing the ball movement and hondo-ing matters into his own hands.  The Maggette-Sanders two-man set up on the weak side does not appear to be a good idea.

Chris Douglas-Roberts, so good in his first two games as a Buck, wasn’t effective off the bench (just 2 of 9) and seemed to be pressing, already.

Keyon Dooling was hitting his shots — two threes and a lay-in — usually a good sign that the Bucks will at least be in the game until the end. … Yet Dooling turned the ball over three times in 14-plus minutes.

Carmelo Anthony got kicked out the game carping at the refs over two straight Sanders in-your-face blocks. …  Yet the Nuggets got better in the game without him.

Brandon Jennings was OK, below average by his standards with 14 pts, making clutch plays in the 4th that pulled the Bucks back to within six.  Where are the assists, Brandon?   Only 3 on the night.  It was that kind of night, and the Bucks headed home with a 105-94 loss.

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NOTES from the Land of Ray and Reggie  —  ATLANTA —  Joe Johnson will undergo elbow surgery on his shooting arm and will miss 4-to-6 weeks.  I wouldn’t mention this but IF Johnson takes six weeks getting back, he’ll miss 24 games, more than the entire Hawks rotation missed last season when they won 53 games and the 3rd seed in the East.  I mention this only because most of the NBA had the Hawks so supremely overrated going into the playoffs against the Bucks — who all but fractured the Hawks mental well-being taking that series to seven.  The Hawks are 12-7, on a pace to win 51 games.  They’re not a tough-minded bunch, those Hawks, and it’ll be interesting to see how they handle a little adversity.

BOSTON – I just watched a late night rerun of the Celtics-Blazers game in Boston, and was amazed at how ugly and out of sync the Celtics looked through one, two, and into three quarters.  The C’s were losing by seven late in the 3rd.   Then the Celtics made one of the toughest defensive stands I’ve seen in a long time, probably since the Pistons teams of 2004 and 2005.  The Bucks have thrown up similar D on teams but I can’t recall them holding a team with Portland’s weapons scoreless for five minutes (could have been longer).  It went on so long that a 72-65 Blazers lead late in the 3rd had turned 96-80 Celtics deep into the 4th a desperate run by Portland made it 99-95.  … Ray Allen hit his only three-pointer of the night to ice the game in the final minute.

NEXT UP FOR the Bucks:  Dwight Howard and the Magic, Saturday — then D-Wade, Lebron and the Heat on Monday.  The Bucks have been holding Andrew Bogut out in anticipation that he’ll be close to full strength for these games and their December schedule — the toughest in the league.   There’s nobody tougher on the Bucks than the Magic in recent years, and while Bogut has played well in some of the matchups, he hasn’t gotten the better of Dwight yet — and Bogut and Skiles have yet to beat Dwight’s team in the Skiles era.

Bucks-Hawks Game 7: Ten reasons why this blogger predicted it would come to this

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.

Photo6) 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

The expressions of the Hawks (left to right) Mike Bibby, Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and Al Horford seem to indicate they know the game is over as they come back onto the floor following a fourth-quarter timeout.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.

Game 5: Bucks heroes, Hawks goats

This wasn’t right. It couldn’t last. The Bucks stunning come-from-behind 91-87 victory in Atlanta will be called unlikely, unbelievable, improbable. But the Bucks should not have been trailing in this game, and certainly not down 13  (67-54) with just under 5 minutes to go in the 3rd, Brandon Jennings having just turned it over to Jamal Crawford for the second time in less than two minutes.

The Bucks had missed layups and wide open jumpers for most of the game, and the Hawks were getting up to block shots in the paint. For about a 13:30 stretch in the first half, the Bucks couldn’t buy a hoop (3-20 shooting) and turned it over 5 times.

“We didn’t play all that well. It was ugly.” — John Salmons

Meanwhile, Hawks center Al Horford hit a prayer of a fallaway as time expired at the half and Hawks forward Marvin Williams had emerged from his usual invisibility and was on his way to career playoff high of 22 points on 8-10 shooting.  Was it more improbable that the Bucks were only down 46-43 at halftime or that the Bucks hadn’t buried the Hawks 60-44?

All the while, Brandon Jennings cruised through the Hawks defense wherever and whenever he pleased, showered in boos from the Atlanta crowd every time he dribbled through the lane. Were they booing Jennings or the Hawks porous defense?   I’ll go with the latter.   The more determined, tough and tenacious team won a thrilling Game 5 in Atlanta.  But the winners in Atlanta also had more wide open lanes to the basket and easy open looks.  The rebounding battle was even.

My notebook was filled by the time Jennings dribbled out the final seconds. box score.

NOW FOR SOME HEROES (there are many)

Ersan Ilyasova: TNT had Kevin McHale in the broadcast chair, and I’m glad they did. McHale touted Ilyasova all game, probably thinking Ersan’s uncanny ability to steal hustle plays would have had him fitting right in with Bird and McHale and Parrish on the 1980’s Celtics championship teams. To Bucks fans who remember the heartbreaking losses to the Sixers in the early 1980’s, the 6’9″ Ersan invokes another player McHale hasn’t forgotten, Sixers forward Bobby Jones, the man who caused more grief than any opposing player in Bucks history. ???

Ilyasova was Bobby Jones incarnate Wednesday night, entering the game with 4:09 to play and the Bucks down nine, 82-73. He took over the game with three come-from-nowhere hustle plays on consecutive Bucks possessions that left the Hawks demoralized, beaten and booed by the Atlanta faithful.

… First he chased down a bricked Jennings free throw in the corner and pitched it to John Salmons, who drew a foul and sank two free throws, his 6th and 7th points in a minute-30. The Bucks were within one, 82-81. …  After Joe Johnson barrelled into Kurt Thomas to foul out, Ilyasova flubbed a pass in the lane but stretched out of bounds to save it to Thomas, who then dumped the ball back into Ilyasova, who had managed to post up — and Ilyasova hit a turnaround jumper to give the Bucks the lead for good, 83-82.

Josh Smith missed a three-pointer for the Hawks (yes, he took that shot) and Jennings took it down and airballed a driving runner in the lane. But Ilyasova snuck in and snatched it from Horford and Williams, fumbled it, almost fell out of bounds and slung it Carlos Delfino in the corner.  Three-pointer, assist Ilyasova, 86-82 Bucks lead with 1:16 to go.  … Not even Bobby Jones ever did that to the Bucks three possessions in a row.

John Salmons: He missed a few good looks early and was having an ugly game until the final four minutes, but he and Johnson were busy. The shooting guards, the leading scorers, waged a defensive battle that didn’t end until Johnson (13 pts, 6/16 shooting) fouled out with 2:15 to play. When Johnson left, Salmons picked up Crawford and, though he had played 43 minutes at that point, seemed suddenly energized and more hyper-intense defensively than I’ve ever seen him. John Salmons in battle fury?  Crawford had no room to breath and missed a jumper, got it back on a Horford rebound and had his shot blocked by Salmons. After a scrum and jump ball, Crawford got it back again and missed badly — with Salmons in his face. Salmons then drew a foul from Horford and sank another free throw, his 19th point and 8th point of the final four minutes. 87-82 Bucks.

Kurt Thomas: He didn’t score in the game and only played 21 mins (6 rebs, 3 assists) but the charge he took on Johnson with 2:15 to play was sandwiched between two of Ilyasova’s hustling back-breakers. In sequence the plays utterly demoralized the Hawks, and Thomas’ D forced their All-Star out of the game. To make it all the more poignent, Crawford buried a three-pointer as Johnson was whistled for the charge. Ouch.

Brandon Jennings and Luke Ridnour:  Ridnour came into the game at the 1:48 mark in the 3rd quarter and hit two big jumpers to keep the Bucks within striking distance. He was then fouled hard by Joe Johnson — no flagrant called — and sank two free throws.  A minute later he hit a three-pointer to pull the Bucks within 4, 77-73.  Those were big shots (9 pts) that prevented the Hawks from pulling away in the late-3rd to mid-4th quarter. 15 pts in 17 mins, plus 4 steals is an assassin game off the bench.  …. 

Jennings was simply irrepressible and doggedly determined to rip through the Hawks defense.  He started the game hot with 14 in the 1st quarter, cooled off but never stopped attacking.  The Hawks have no answer and allowed him to dribble in and out and around their defense all game long, sometimes not even giving chase.  Jennings has been on a mission since he found his focus in Game 3.

SOME GOATS (quite a few of these, too)

Josh Smith: 7 pts, 9 rebs, 4 assists and 3 blks for the Hawks big man. Maybe he is all of 6’8″. Two of his buckets were “Highlight Factory” plays but in the half court all he could manage was a 20-footer from the top of the key. Ilyasova and Luc Mbah a Moute had forced him out to the perimeter again. With the Hawks trailing by 1 after Ilyasova’s jumper, with shooters Mike Bibby and Crawford on the court, Smith launched a 3-pointer. Josh Smith hasn’t hit from 3-point land all season long.  Have the Hawks simply given up on Coach Mike Woodson?   Smith played well enough at times, and played some good defense throughout, but he’s just not there every second. With Ilyasova and Mbah a Moute in his grill every second he’s on the court, Smith has backed down from the challenge. If you look like you just don’t care and act like you just don’t care — you don’t care, Josh.

Mike Bibby: Shot only 5 times all game and missed two free throws late in the 3rd when the Hawks were up 13 with a chance to break away. Only two dimes for the game, most of which was spent guarding forwards Carlos Delfino and even Ilyasova because the Hawks continue to switch their bigs onto Jennings.

Joe Johnson: He’s going to light up the Bradley Center Friday, or go down trying.  Johnson will try to put the Hawks on his back in Game 6 and get them back home for Game 7.  Like the genuine All-Pro that he’s been, Johnson never seems to be idle on the court. Salmons held him to 13 pts on 6-16 shooting but Joe also had 6 assists and 6 rebs, and played tough D all night on Salmons.  On the goat side of things …. Johnson tied Crawford with a game high 4 turnovers and his team lost its head when he fouled out (Smith shooting a 3) which says something about how limited the Hawks clear-out based half-court offense is.  And Johnson got away with a flagrant foul on Luke Ridnour midway through the 4th quarter, tossing the driving Luke to the floor with a two handed shove.  That’s the second flagrant Johnson has gotten away with in the series. The first was in Game 1 when he pulled Luc Mbah a Moute to the floor in frustration after Luc’s breakaway steal late in the 4th.  The refs wouldn’t be protecting the Hawks All-Star would they?  That seems a little out of place in this series.

Jamal Crawford: No, it’s not really Crawford’s fault that he spent the last few years in New York and Golden State, where defense is a dirty word. He howed some heart and willingness to battle with the Bucks (much moreso than Bibby) but shot 4-18.  No, it’s not really Crawford’s fault that he’s always been a streaky shooter.  He did, however, steal it from Jennings twice in the 3rd quarter as the Hawks built their 13 point lead.  That was probably the first time he and the rest of the Hawks thought the game was in the bag.

Al Horford: How can a guy with a career playoff high of 25 pts and 11 rebs be a goat?  Horford led the Hawks in garbage — buckets that dropped in despite horrendous shot selection. There was the fallaway jumper to end the half and then his first 3-pointer of the season, which he banked in from the top of the key.  That sort of highlight junk (which the Hawks seem to get a lot of) distorted the perception of the game, which was controlled by the Bucks point guards throughout.  The Hawks were never really playing well in this one, despite the score.

It should also be noted that the 20+ points and 11 rebounds, minus the garbage, was still more in Game 5 than Horford scored/rebounded in Games 3 and 4 (18 pts, 11 rebs total). …  This was how Horford’s season went. One good game (big games against the Knicks and the Pacers) mixed in with a couple of bad ones.  The good games resulted in All-Star reserve votes, and he only needed four of those to make it on a scattered vote for the last spot.

Zaza Pachulia: 7 minutes in the 1st half, an and-one and a flagrant foul on Jennings. Kurt Thomas looked ready to kill him and Zaza seemed genuinely worried.

Milwaukee Bucks/Atlanta Hawks Game Review: What Happens Now?Coach Mike Woodson: Will winning the series save his job?  Does he even want to work for the Hawks at this point?  Does it get any worse than Josh Smith and Al Horford shooting threes at crunchtime?  Is there any chance the Hawks will suddenly listen to Woodson in Milwaukee, Game 6?