Tag Archives: Joe Johnson

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.)

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.

********************

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?

Bucks-Hawks Game 5: Brandon Jennings… Hawks frontline shrinking down to size… D-Wade and the Heat… and other playoff notes

THE MAGNIFICENT DAMAGE that Bucks rookie Brandon Jennings inflicted on the Hawks porous D Monday in Game 4 has a lot of people rethinking the Bucks-Hawks series now that it’s tied 2-2.  Jennings’ bout with playoff inexperience (Game 2) is behind him, and the 20-year-old point guard is on the attack, his confidence and aggressiveness growing as the series progresses. The Hawks don’t have a defender who can stay in front of the young Buck.

Hawks All-Star Joe Johnson was asked whether the Hawks needed to make any adjustments. He said no, that his team needed “more energy, more passion and heart. “

In other words, there are no adjustments the Hawks can make for Jennings.  There’s no Kobe Bryant on the roster to assign himself the responsibility, as Kobe did against Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook in their Game 5.  If the task is left to Al Horford and Josh Smith, switching onto Young Buck on high screens, Jennings’ teammates have plenty more unchallenged layups coming their way. If point guard Mike Bibby switches to allow Marvin Williams or Johnson a turn on Jennings, John Salmons and Carlos Delfino have the field days they had Monday (44 pts combined). The Hawks are an average defensive team (15th in the league) with very below average perimeter defenders. At this point, they have no choice but to live with it.

As for heart, passion, energy and determination, Jennings brings it almost every night, and so do most of his teammates. The Bucks were the wrong team for the Hawks to give any kind of foothold to.

The HAWKS are in the NBA news quite a bit today: Rumors have Hawks management planning to lowball Woodson (I think they’re just going to fire him), offer Joe Johnson a max contract and possible sell their first round draft pick for $3 mill.  Peachtree Hoops wonders if the Hawks are still in the playoffs.  Less and less, Hawks fans.

A PET PEEVE: The disparity between the perception of the Hawks’ front court and the reality of the Hawks front court is almost a national phenomenon. Let’s set the record straight and see if anybody’s paying attention:

Josh Smith, Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia do not have a size advantage over the Bucks’ Luc Mbah a Moute, Ersan Ilyasova, Kurt Thomas and Dan Gadzuric. This is plain for the eye to see yet everybody continues to report, write, comment that the Hawks are failing to exploit “a size advantage.”

Horford is an undersized center, and that’s not good enough in the playoffs. At age 23, even journeyman NBA centers are going to be,

1) Bigger and stronger;

2) More skilled in at least a facet or two of the game; and,

3) A lot more experienced.

Andrew Bogut’s two-headed center in relief (Thomas and Gadzuric) are any one (or all) of those three things and it shows. Even Gadzuric, who was hardly active all season, has been around long enough to control the glass and play good D. Gadz has played Horford strong and outplayed Pachulia in his 18 minutes in Game 4 and the first half of the Game 3 blowout.

Smith does give the Hawks some advantages at power forward — experience, upper body strength and ups.  But now that he’s battling Mbah a Moute and Ilyasova instead of Carlos Delfino and Ilyasova, the Bucks have matched Smith up. Let’s be real, NBA faithful — some of that heft Smith is carrying around isn’t muscle, and it shows when he’s up against the quicker Mbah a Moute.  …  “The Prince” and Ersan are both taller than Smith and long-armed, too.  They’ve also outproduced Josh in this series.

Sixth Man of the Year: The Hawks Jamal Crawford won it, but before it was announced Journal Sentinel scribe Tom Enlund asked Crawford what it was like playing for Scott Skiles on the 2003-04 Chicago Bulls.  Let’s just say Enlund left out some important details in this blurb — like Crawford’s nonexistent D and the fact that the Bulls shipped him out of Chi-town after Skiles’ first season.

Crawford is a good shooter and averaged 18 off the bench for the Hawks this season.  He shot well in Game 1 but looked awfully lost on the court in the first playoff series of is career — until  Game 4.  Now that he’s “back to normal” as he put it, it’s probably a good idea to stay at home on him. Luke Ridnour and Brandon Jennings draw the Crawford assignment more often than not.

Hawks Coach Mike Woodson: His contract’s up, the Hawks won’t talk to him about it, and he’ll be gone after the playoffs — the Bucks have assured that.  Vinnie Del Negro’s job in Chicago is probably more secure than Woodson’s, though at this point Woodson probably wouldn’t mind parting ways with the Hawks’ brass.   “Sources say” the Bulls won’t decide on Del Negro’s fate until sometime this weekend, but that was an ESPN story so … wait for the Chicago papers before telling your friends and neighbors or that stranger in the bar stool next to you. The Bulls put up a great fight to get into the playoffs and an even better one against the Cavs. Del Negro doesn’t deserve the axe.

The Miami Heat are impressive.  Overmatched and down 0-3 to the Celtics, Dwyane Wade pulled them to 1-3 on Sunday.  Then in Game 5 Tuesday in Boston, the Heat withstood a textbook Celtics offensive game and were hanging in there, down seven, staying well within D-Wade striking distance. …

I’m a Celtics/Ray Allen fan, not a surprising revelation from a Bucks blogger. And I’ve always liked KG’s game. How quickly so many have forgetten that Garnett was hands down the best player in the NBA circa 2003-05 when Shaq-Kobe malfunctioned in L.A.   The thing I’ve had to get over in following the Celtics is Paul Pierce and the ill will that I had toward the Pierce-Antoine Walker teams of the late 1990’s-2003.  Walker and his sluggish ball-hoggery were the source of those feelings, to be sure, but Pierce bears some responsibility in his role as Walker’s better half.  But I got over it and make it a point to watch the Celtics whenever I can, adopting them as “my team” for the playoffs in the absence of the Bucks in 2008 and ’09.

I can say with fandom authority that the Celtics don’t play much better than they did Tuesday in Game 5, and when the Celtics are good, they’re as good as anybody in the NBA.  Yet the Heat refused to go away until the final 1:30 of the game.  Sure, being led by the 2nd best player in the NBA (sorry Dwight) goes a long way — of course it does. But what’s really impressive is how unifed and indomnable the team behind him is.  At times they even seem like an organic extension of Wade on both ends of the court.  This is a credit to Erik Spoelstra, one of the more underrated coaches in the NBA, and says a lot about Wade as a leader.

The organic effect, visually speaking, is aided by Michael Beasley, such a natural ball player (even when he’s being benched in Game 5), but it comes through in everything the Heat do on the court. Their ball movement and spacing is always good, their shot selection just as good; and Spoelstra has them playing tough, sticky, ball pressure defense that rotates as well as the Top 4 Eastern conference defenses (Charlotte, Orlando, Milwaukee and Boston). In Toronto, Jermaine O’Neal seemed out of place and on his last legs. In Miami he’s a defensive presence, a legitimate and effective center.

The Celtics prevailed 96-86 (24 pts and 5 threes from Ray) and the Heat have “gone fishing,” to quote Kenny and Charles. A retooling is ahead in the offseason with most of the Heat roster in free agency and cap space to land an All-Star.  I don’t see Wade leaving Miami/Spoelstra (neither does he, it seems) nor do I see Heat GM Pat Riley failing to bring in the right big man (Bosh, Boozer, maybe David Lee?). Riley will let others make the Ama’re Stoudemire mistake.

A DIFFERENT BREED (Tyreke Evans not included).  Sekou Smith tracked down Bucks guard John Salmons this week for his “Hang Time” blog at NBA.com. The reason?  Salmons has had the unique experience of sharing backcourts this season with Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings. How are Rose and Jennings able to be so good so young?

“They’re just a different breed,” Salmons concludes. Writer Smith names Jennings, Rose, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in his context.  He’d like to include Rookie of the Year favorite Tyreke Evans in the mix, but it doesn’t sound as though Salmons and Jennings are willing to play ball r.e. the Kings rookie. Here’s what Jennings had to say:

“I think it really depends on the person and how he approaches the games. Kevin Durant is a winner. Derrick Rose is a winner. Of course, I like to win. I’ve been saying that from the first day I got here. Winning is everything to me. So it just depends on the type person you are, the player you are.” — Brandon Jennings.

20-5-5? Don’t get me started about the historical irrelevance of this thing. Five rebounds from the guard position is tough in any day and NBA era and it’s great that Evans has a nose for the ball and a drive for the glass. But as the #1 scorer on the ping-counting Kings, Evans and his team would have been better served in the long run had he focused less on passing and more on his shooting/scoring  That’s what Jerry West did in his first few years in the league, and West didn’t hit the 5 assists mark (per 36) minutes until his 3rd year in the NBA.  He was too busy putting the ball in the hole.  Not to put Evans in the company of West, who played before my time, nor to say that 5 assists is anything to be aimed for … don’t get me started on 20-5-5.

Sactown Royalty has learned that Evans has won Rookie of the Year, which will be annonced later this week.  Jennings has accomplished more this season, leading a team still very much in transition — and making personnel changes on the go — into the playoffs.  It wouldn’t have happened had Jennings cared less about winning.

“Scott Skiles: More than a tough guy.” You gotta love the guys at Celticsblog.com. After the last regular season game, blogger tenaciousT eschewed the usual press conference mumbo jumbo and decided to spend his time in the Bucks locker room interviewing Bucks players about what makes their coach tick.

Scott Skiles, writes tenaciousT, is intriguing because, well, “coaching styles, personalities and results” are intriguing.  TenaciousT is like a lot of Celtics fans who appreciate defense, so he wanted to know how one of the NBA’s top defensive coaches makes it all work.

Tenacious interviews Skiles and the veterans: Kurt Thomas, Charlie Bell, John Salmons and Jerry Stackhouse. There are comments from Skiles on whether his Chicago Bulls “stopped listening” to him.  The comments from Salmons, the fish who saves but can opt out and leave, are worth a read. Most candid was Charlie Bell, tenacious says, and pay no attention to the elephant in the room during his interview with Charlie.

Bango is nuts! This was at Game 4.  What does he have planned for Game 6?

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Bucks-Hawks recap: Jennings dazzles; Smith and Horford outplayed again

For the second time in three days the Hawks frontline starring Josh Smith, Al Horford and backup center Zaza Pachulia were outplayed by the 69-year-old, two headed center filling in for Andrew Bogut and a pair of tenacious, defensive-minded young forwards named Mbah a Moute and Ilyasova.

But Brandon Jennings was so brilliant at point in orchestrating the Bucks’ 111-104 victory Monday in Game 4 that the paint battle won by the Bucks big men will probably escape notice. And Jennings was genius, in attack mode most of the game, knifing through the Hawks switching, slow-footed perimeter defense as the Bucks ran a layup drill on their way to a 2-2 split in the best-of-seven series. 

Jennings led the Bucks with 23 points and 6 assists. John Salmons was the model of midrange efficiency with 22 pts on 9 shots (10/10 from the line). Carlos Delfino finally arrived in the series, breaking out of a 28% shooting funk to hit 6/8 from three-point-land and score 22. 

The Bucks shot 55% for the game — a cornucupia of layups and wide open shots, thank you Hawks D.  The Bucks rarely settled for jump shots and sank 28/32 free throws. 

Yes, the Bucks shot 32 free throws. That’s news.

The boxscore shows that the Bucks won a game at home and split in the series. But they also came away with some important realizations: 1) They can withstand a good shooting night from the Hawks and win; and, 2) They controlled the paint once again since the switch of Luc Mbah a Moute onto Josh Smith in Game 3. The Bucks weren’t supposed to be able to accomplish #2 with Andrew Bogut on the sidelines in an arm cast.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Hawks All-Star Joe Johnson. “It’s like we don’t have toughness. They’re getting to all the loose balls, all the rebounds.”

Delfino isn’t going to shoot 6/8 from downtown most games, true enough. But Jamal Crawford and Mike Bibby aren’t likely to combine for 36 pts on 67% true shooting, either. Crawford found “normal” after three lost games and scored 21 pts on 12 shots. Mike Bibby was 5-7 from 3-point-land for 15 points on 11 shots. Overall the Hawks shot 48% and made 10 of 19 from 3-point land. The Hawks shot well enough to win.

Joe Johnson was superb again, shooting 11/22, scoring 29 and dishing out 9 assists.

In the battle under the hoop, however, the Hawks talented stars, Smith and Horford, were losing again. Throughout the game, the Bucks stayed bigger than the Hawks, matching Horford and Pachulia with Kurt Thomas and Dan Gadzuric, and Smith with Mbah a Moute and Ersan Ilyasova. Contrary to what has been written and said repeatedly about this series, the Bucks have the size advantage and whatever edge Smith had in athleticism has been mitigated by Mbah a Moute, who’s slightly taller, just as athletic and probably quicker.

The Bucks locked the Hawks big men down, rebounded more (Bucks held a 41-38 edge including team rebounds), scored more and fouled less.  The tale of the tape shows that the Hawks big men came out on top only by turning the ball over less.

Smith, Horford, Pachulia:  90 mins, 30 pts, 19 boards, 2 blocks, 5 turnovers and 13 fouls. And Smith had two steals.

Thomas, Gadzuric, Mbah a Moute & Ilyasova:  95 mins, 37 pts, 24 rebs, 2 blocks, 8 turnovers and 9 fouls. Gadzuric had a steal.

Smith was strong  with 20 pts and 9 boards but this is no longer a mismatch. Mbah a Moute and Ilyasova (21 pts, 10 rebs combined) are matching Smith at every pivot and box-out, and he retreated to the perimeter to do his late game scoring — including a jumpshot banked in from above the free throw line.

Horford (8 pts, 8 rebs) is simply being outplayed by Thomas and Gadzuric, who count height, weight and about 22 years of NBA experience on him. 

Gadzuric has found new life in the playoffs after almost an entire season on the end of the bench and on the inactive list, all but forgotten save for the final 14 months of the $36 million contract he signed in 2005.  Monday night, Gadz was everywhere in 16 mins, with 7 pts, 5 boards, a steal and a rejection into the seats that brought the Bradley Center crowd to its feet.  In your face Joe Johnson:

In 51 minutes played in games 2, 3 and 4, Gadz has hauled in 21 boards and blocked 3 shots.

Bucks-Hawks Game 2: Playing bigger… but how tall is the Hawks frontcourt, really?

Very little except Brandon Jennings went right for the Bucks at the outset of Game 1.  The Bucks missed shots, they turned it over. Josh Smith and Al Horford and the Hawks shooters drained everything they shot.  Luc Mbah a Moute had Joe Johnson corralled (just 2 for his first 7), but early on Joe fed his teammates like his name was Magic Johnson (3 asts, 1st qtr). 

What happened next was “oh-no-Scott-Skiles” obvious to everybody who watched it happen — when the Bucks went small their troubles intensified (a 31-12 lead for the Hawks). When they went big (Ersan Ilyasova at power forward and Kurt Thomas at center) things stabilized.  … At the 6:12 mark in the 2nd quarter, the score was 44-29.

A small lineup of Ilyasova on Horford, Carlos Delfino on Smith and John Salmons on Johnson crash landed to a 62-40 halftime score. Let’s not do that again, coach Skiles.

There’s nothing complicated or tricky about the Atlanta Hawks. There’s Johnson, All-Pro guard-forward. Joe’s a 21.3 ppg, 5 assists-per, bonafide star. About 40% of the Hawks offense runs through Johnson on the perimeter or in isolation. … Then there’s power forward Smith and center Horford. They’re a bit undersized for their positions, but it doesn’t seem to matter (I’m not going to mention Andrew Bogut here). They’re strong and fairly good and mobile in the post (30 pts, 19 rebs between them). Their forte is their boardwork and defense, especially Smith, who’s in the air so much on help D that nobody really seems to know (or care) how tall he really is. …  (see below)

Johnson, Smith & Horford, LLC., play heavy minutes – 117 against the Bucks in the 102-92 win in Game 1.  Johnson starts as the shooting guard, gets one break per half around the quarter change, then substitutes in as the small forward. … Backup center Zaza Pachulia breaks Horford 6 minutes per half.  … Joe Smith backs up Josh Smith and a forward named Marvin helps out, too.  …  But Johnson, Smith & Horford, LLC., are on the court most of the time for the Hawks, and most of the time they are on the court together. Coach Mike Woodson generally surrounds his LLC with a rotation of guards (led by Mike Bibby and Jamal Crawford) who shoot rather well.

It’s simple stuff. And there’s simply no going small against Johnson, Smith & Horford, LLC., not with Andrew Bogut in a full-arm cast.

In the 2nd half, the Bucks starters tried again and, with Jennings on fire (34 pts), quickly cut 10 off the Hawks lead.  Suddenly Delfino could guard Smith. Mbah a Moute was kicking Boute on Johnson, denying opportunities; and Horford was no longer killing Thomas. …  Skiles’ first substitution was 6’9″ Ilyasova for 6’6″ Delfino.  Ilyasova was deployed to guard Smith.  Mbah a Moute stayed stuck on Johnson.   The Bucks stayed in the game. 

What to look for in Game 2:  More of the Bucks we saw in the 2nd half of Game 1.  Brandon Jennings and John Salmons will have to shoulder the scoring load. Look for Jennings to cool off some but for Salmons to improve on the 6-18 (0-5 on threes) he shot in Game 1.

Skiles shouldn’t even think about releasing Mbah a Moute from Johnson duty (read yesterday’s post on that here).  After starting Game 1 shooting 2-8, Joe reeled off 8 quick points with John Salmons guarding him, part of the Hawks run at the end of the 2nd quarter that put the Bucks down 22 at half. He did it in the paint against the small lineup with Ilyasova at center, scoring on a tip-in, two drives and 2 free throws.

Carlos Delfino needs to have a better start against Smith and get his offensive game (4 pts in Game 1) going in this series.  He’ll have a good run in the 1st quarter, but Ilyasova — not Stackhouse — will likely come off the bench for Del and pick up Smith in the post.  … Ilyasova, listed at 6’9″, appears a couple of inches taller than Smith, also listed at 6’9″. In fact, Ilyasova seems just as long, or longer, than Horford, listed at 6’10”.

Bucks center Kurt Thomas will see the bulk of minutes guarding Horford. Funny, Thomas is listed at 6’9″ too — and appears on my TV to be about the same height as Horford.

How tall are these Hawks, really? 

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.

Horford’s in the foreground, so it’s hard to tell with him. But Johnson (2) and Smith (5) are standing even. They appear to be exactly the same height. That’s Mike Bibby next to them, and he’s listed at 6’1″.  Hmm.  

We do know that Johnson is shorter than Mbah a Moute. They spent a lot of time together on Saturday and Mbah a Moute is definitely a full 6’8″, same height as Lebron James.  Johnson’s height came up in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story today, or I should say it came down … to a published 6’7″.

[Parts of that story in the Milwaukee daily were even cribbed from my story on Luc’s confining defensive work on Johnson yesterday, right down to the Kevin Durant “toughest defenders” reference and noting Luc as a player taller than Johnson. I’m flattered.]

But should I call it 6’7″ on Johnson and Smith? Bibby can’t possibly be 6’3″.  I think we need another look.

Smith is stepping slightly forward of Johnson, but it looks about equal. I think it’s fair to say that Johnson and Smith are about 6’7″.  Maybe another look at Horford will clear things up further.

Horford’s definitely got some height on Smith, and if Smith is 6’8″, then, sure, Horford’s 6’10”.  But we’ve already established that, unless Bibby is 6’3″, Smith is probably more like 6’7″-ish.

No wonder Scott Skiles feels comfortable starting 6’6″ small forward Carlos Delfino — who’s no lightweight — on Smith.  I think it’s time to call it. 

Johnson and Smith:  6′ 7″-ish, with Smith 7’1″ when leaping

Horford:  a full 6’9″

Made in Cameroon: Joe Johnson’s new suit

 Twenty minutes into the 2nd half of Hawks-Bucks Game 1 Saturday, and the Hawks just couldn’t find a way to finish off Scott Skiles’ Bucks. The Hawks 22-point halftime lead had been cut down to seven, eight and Brandon Jennings was coming at them fast, leading chance after chance — 7 possessions in all — to pull the Bucks closer. 

On the other end, Joe Johnson, the Hawks leading scorer, an All-Pro who had averaged 27.3 pts on 55% shooting in three regular season games against the Bucks, was clearly frustrated.  The Hawks offense had generated just 5 shots for Johnson in the half.  He made two of those 5 and generated a third bucket for himself on a rebound-miss-and-tip-in.  In 18 minutes of 2nd half court-time, Joe’s offense amounted to six hard fought points and two assists — to go with the misses and two 3rd quarter turnovers.  And the Bucks wouldn’t go away. 

The reason for Joe Johnson’s frustration was Luc Mbah a Moute, Bucks defender-at-large; real honest-to-murgatroid prince in his native Cameroon, Africa; the man Kevin Durant named his toughest defender in the league (with Ron Artest). 

Mbah a Moute, the Bucks starting power forward, lived in Johnson’s jersey in the 2nd half of Game 1.  At a full 6’8″, Mbah a Moute is taller, has longer arms and is quicker than Johnson.  No player that tall and that long with ability to harass a jumpshot is quicker in a defensive crouch, and that’s what Durant was talking about. 

He denied Joe the ball, he crowded him on the perimeter, left hand ever-extended, fingers forming a web in the Hawks star’s face. He challenged what few jumpers Johnson attempted, he bodied his post back-downs, he cut off his drives. His long reach altered post entry passes, he forced turnovers, he hit the glass, he stole the ball.  Except for a 4:00 break while both players took a breather (end of the 3rd-beginning of the 4th) Johnson and Mbah a Moute were an inseparable fact of life for the Hawks stalled offense, and for Johnson the quality of that life was miserable. 

It all came to a head with 3:30 to play as Johnson hit a jumper that seemed to announce an end to the 3 minutes of offensive futility (for both teams) and put the Hawks up by 12.  That should have provided the breathing room the Hawks needed. But after a Bucks miss, Jerry Stackhouse stole the ball from Hawks point guard Mike Bibby and drove for a layup.  

On the next possession, Johnson, calling for the ball at the elbow, cut to Bibby as Bibby dribbled into the key. Mbah a Moute stepped in, tipped Bibby’s jump pass and ran it the other way, flipping it in as Johnson grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him to the floor. No flagrant foul on Johnson, though it looked like there should have been one. The frustration had boiled over, and the Bucks had cut the Hawks lead back down to 8. 

As Mbah a Moute stepped to the line to shoot the and-one, he smiled.

Johnson and the Hawks may have gone on to win the game, but Mbah a Moute was winning an important battle in the war. … He missed the free throw, though, and the Hawks took it and reran the set that Mbah a Moute had disrupted seconds earlier.  This time Johnson dribbled in isolation and, with the shot clock running down and Mbah a Moute all over him, forced up an awkward fallaway 20-footer from the top of the key.  It banked in.  H-O-R-S-E  if Johnson had called it. I don’t think he did. Game 1 to the Hawks. 

Kurt Rambis brings down a tough board, demonstrating the style of play that gave the All-Rambis team its name.Joe’s thumb: At some point during his battle against Mbah a Moute, Johnson banged his thumb, aggravating an injury he suffered March 31 against the Lakers, in an entanglement with — guess who?  Durant’s other “toughest defender,” Ron Artest. 

“It takes a little while for [the feeling] to come back,” Johnson said after the game. “Other than that, I’ve been good. I am just trying to pick my spots out there and get guys involved.” 

Artest and Mbah a Moute’s names come up a lot when it comes to defense and dirty work.  They’re both 2010 All-Defensive honorable mention forwards on the Basketball Prospectus and NBA.Com media project teams. 

ESPN columnist John Hollinger called Mbah a Moute the NBA’s “most underrated defensive player,” and put him on his All-NBA Defensive squad (3rd team). Not sure he’s underrated, though his playing time did drop below half-time in March and April.   

As a rookie in 2009, Mbah a Moute was named Eastern Conference sixth man on USA Today’s first annual “All-Rambis Team,”  honoring grittiness and dirty work in the era of NBA millionaires — in the spirit of Laker’ big forward Kurt Rambis, of course. The Cavs’ Andy Varejao, the Rockets Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem of the Heat were some of the other notables on the team. 

Kobe Bryant on Mbah a Moute: “You don’t see a lot of players who understand the value of playing hard defensively.” 

Playing time:  The job Mbah a Moute did on Johnson wasn’t that surprising — Luc’s been assigned the NBA’s best since he came into league out of UCLA in 2008. The Bucks have been the toughest defense for D-Wade to score on since then. A Bucks-Nuggets game usually results in epic struggles between Mbah a Moute and Carmelo Anthony. Against the Celtics, “the prince” has guarded Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett — in a single game. He guards Lebron James.

What has been surprising is his lack of playing time against the Hawks and Johnson this season, despite being the logical cover for both Johnson and Josh Smith. Mbah a Moute was relegated to an avg. of 18.3 minutes vs. the Hawks, playing less vs. only the Jazz, Grizzlies, T-Wolves and Spurs. 

All three Bucks-Hawks games were played after the trading deadline, when John Salmons became a Buck. Skiles often left the 6’6″ Salmons and Johnson to go head-to-head. Mbah a Moute spent more time on Smith than Johnson, much more on the Bucks bench. Skiles did call on Mbah a Moute to guard Johnson during the final minute of the Bucks 98-95 win in Milwaukee March 22.  Joe had been on fire (27 pts, 13-23) but was 0 for 2 to end the game.  

During the season, starting small forward Carlos Delfino played well (15.3 pts) and a lot (39.3 mins) against the Hawks.  Jerry Stackhouse played an avg. of 24 mins (Skiles has obviously liked scorers on the floor against the Hawks’ weak perimeter defenders).  The playing time losers were Mbah a Moute and versatile big forward Ersan Ilyasova (21.3 mins) and the Bucks. They lost 2 of those 3 games. 

The playoff trend is bound to be different for Mbah a Moute after 31 mins — 20 as Johnson’s shadow in the 2nd half. … But what about Delfino, Stackhouse and Ilyasova, who was expected to have a larger role in the absence of Andrew Bogut? 

Stackhouse (27 mins) played more than Delfino (23) and Ilyasova (23) Saturday. The Bucks have now lost 3 of 4 to the Hawks.  Expect some changes here. Skiles can’t become so overly concerned about scoring that he’s leaving his better defenders on the bench. It’s not as though Delfino (11.0) and Ilyasova (10.4 in 23 mins, 15.9 per 36) haven’t averaged double figures in scoring for the Bucks this season.

Bucks vs. Hawks: This one’s going seven

If the prediction is “Hawks in six” (a fairly common one in the the blogosphere), why shouldn’t it be seven?  Can the Hawks, a notoriously road-challenged team, be expected to win a Game 6 in Milwaukee?

I’m throwing this out there after reading Sekou Smith’s preview at NBA.com, “Despite losing Bogut, Bucks big test for the Hawks.”   Smith likes the Hawks in six, and he’s not the only one. Kelly Dwyer at Ball Don’t Lie says six, too. These are guys who know the Bucks, doubt the Hawks a bit and don’t think Atlanta can take it in five — I don’t either. 

THIS JUST IN: The Hawks own bloggers at SB Nation (Peachtree Hoops) doubt the Hawks enough to call it in six.

Well fellas, if this series is going six, then it’s going seven.

Smith in his preview does a better job of making points that so far a lot “Fear the Deer” faithful still don’t seem to trust, points that I haven’t emphasized enough (probably because I’ve been busy harping on the Hawks’ defensive tendencies, or lack therof). The biggest one, in all its obviousness, is that Scott Skiles‘ Bucks, with or without Bogut, are an intense, elite defensive team that will challenge every single step the Hawks make on offense. The Bucks have spent the better part of the season talking about “50-50 plays” that win games. Never count them out.

This follows to the rather impolite sort of point that I don’t mind making: the Bucks are clearly the better-coached team, the players “coached up” in a way that the Hawks aren’t.  The Bucks, believe it or not, LIKE playing never-let-up Skiles-ketball and Skiles has the Bucks organization behind him 100%.  On the Hawks side, coach Mike Woodson may very well be looking for a job after the playoffs (see below).

Bucks Offense:  The Bucks have their offensive shortcomings, no question about it, while the Hawks are second only to the Suns in offensive efficiency. A lot of smoooth shooters on this Hawks team. But the Bucks have a Skiles-induced clarity about what they need to do to make up the difference and they’re none too shy about it. They’ll move the rock quickly side-to-side and get the Hawks defenders switching and moving, then either shoot it without conscience or attack the rim. John Salmons, Carlos Delfino and Ersan Ilyasova are free to fire it up from Downtown. Skiles and Brandon Jennings have already identified the rookie’s need to be on the attack.  The bench offense led by Luke Ridnour and Jerry Stackhouse will keep up the pace amid reminders (and a lot of in-game griping from me) that Ilyasova and a couple of other teammates are on the court with them.

Hawks Defense:  The Hawks boast a single player — Josh Smith — who relishes defense. The rest of the rotation is filled with terrible perimeter defenders and a couple of big men (Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia) who, as under-utilized as they are in Woodson’s offensive system,  are forced to play out-of-position D due to all the switching that goes on to cover up for the shortcomings of Mike Bibby, Jamal Crawford, Joe Johnson and Maurice Evans.  “Play Jeff Teague” is darn near a mantra from Hawks faithful who care about defense.

Ersan Ilyasova #7 of the Milwaukee Bucks grabs a rebound against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on November 3, 2009 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the Bucks 83-81.

The crux of the matter from the Hawks side seems to be same one that’s been there for a couple of years: Will Josh Smith be consistent enough for the Hawks to be an elite team?  I’ll suggest that this problem with Smith isn’t necessarily his problem at all — if Woodson was a better coach, if the Hawks had brought in more complete players  than Bibby or Crawford, the team’s hopes wouldn’t rest on Smith being a Superman help defender.  

Bucks believers and nonbelievers alike are concerned about Brandon Jennings’ shooting and whether or not he can make the Hawks pay for all that switching around they do on D. It’s a “will the rookie make the right decisions?” question that drives Jennings to do what he’s done all season long: prove people wrong.  Just don’t turn the ball over in crunchtime, kid, and crank it up.

Rebounding:  If there’s one key for both teams beyond the basic “this is what they are and what they do” stuff, it’s rebounding.  If the Bucks can rebound the ball with the kind of tenacity with which they D it up, they’ll be in a position to win this series. If not, they’ll take a game and it’ll be over in Atlanta, Game 5. We miss you Andrew Bogut.

Bogut’s backup, Kurt Thomas, will give what he can at age 38. The Bucks’ universally praised defensive specialist, Luc Mbah a Moute, will be asked to help on Smith and Johnson and keep the former off the glass. But Ersan Ilyasova is the man on the spot for the Bucks in the paint. Ilyasova’s knack for being in the right place at the right time to win the 50-50 plays that Skiles believes are the game deciders will be the key. These games will be close and could well come down to how many of these battles Ilyasova (and Mbah a Moute) win over Smith.

Johnson (21.3 ppg) for the Hawks and Salmons (19.9) for the Bucks will fill it up. That almost goes without saying, and in this blog it nearly did.

The Bucks will force this series to a Game 7. With the right break or two (or three) they’ll take the series.

Woodson and Johnson’s last stand?  Atlanta coach Mike Woodson’s contract is up after this season. One would think Woodson would have been offered an extension had the Hawks wanted him back.  This was an issue after last season, still no extension for Woodson.

Joe Johnson will hit the free agent market this summer, looking for a max deal. If the Hawks pony up, they’re in luxury tax territory standing pat with a team that can’t beat the Orlando Magic.

This should have been dealt with last summer but instead of thinking about the next three-four years and retooling around All-Pro Johnson and a talented front court after being swept by the Cavs, the Hawks decided it was all about this season. They resigned Bibby and added Crawford, got off to a fast start, then ran smack into Dwight Howard and the Magic’s will to dominate. Now the Hawks find themselves only a few games better than Bogut and Milwaukee, likely underdogs if the Bucks All-Pro center was playing in this series. The Bucks improvement aside, the rebuilding plan in Chicago has gone as planned and the Bulls are poised to be big winners in the summer, to say nothing of D-Wade’s powers of persuasion in Miami.

Not that a lowly Bucks blogger writing any of this on the eve of a playoffs series is big news, but this series is probably Woodson’s Waterloo. Win or lose against a well-coached Skiles team playing without its All-Pro center, this series will spell out in no uncertain terms the “what if” possibilities of making a coaching change in Atlanta. No two NBA organizations in the playoffs are so starkly different in terms of where they’re at — (whoa, almost forgot about the drama in Chicago) … In Atlanta, things are simpler.

The Hawks arrived at the crossroads last summer, chose their path and there’s no going back. The only direction now is forward, and forward means taking their lumps against the Bucks (and Magic if they survive), resigning Johnson and saying goodbye to Woodson in hopes that a new coach is the guy who can lead the current Hawks to the next level.