Tag Archives: Mike Bibby

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.)

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 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″

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.

Bucks playoffs: No fear of the Hawks… or interest either

Brandon Jennings 55 pointsBrandon Jennings wanted to play those “big bullies” from Boston, battle worn and battle weary as they are, missing some of their 2008 swagger but still the face of playoff intimidation.  The Celtics are Goliath to Jennings and the Bogut-less Bucks’ David.

But Goliath refused to walk into David’s camp.  In Chicago Tuesday, the Celtics monitored Kevin Garnett‘s minutes and left Rajon Rondo on the bench while Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich lit up the Celtics for 69 combined points to lead the Bulls to a 1o1-93 win.  Goliath has lost six of its last nine and given up the #3 seed in the East to Atlanta.

The Bucks close the season with one final test against those bullies they see as rivals-to-be in the East. Then David, more than likely, prepares for a series with the Hawks.

The Hawks?  Brandon Jennings vs. Mike Bibby doesn’t exactly set the world on fire (so far it hasn’t found so much as a flint or kindling). Josh Smith vs. Ersan Ilyasova?  Not to tug on Smith’s headband here but it doesn’t have quite the same “oh-oh” gravity as Ilyasova vs. Garnett, and Smith will be too busy guarding Jennings and everybody else the Hawks can’t check to keep track of Ersan.

The Bucks, playing their 5th game without Andrew Bogut, filed another dud against the Hawks Monday night at the BC yet were within two, 89-87, in the 4th quarter before the Hawks pulled away. At least Jennings played in this one. In the first two games, the rookie point guard played a surprisingly few 40 minutes combined (an overtime loss in Atlanta and a 98-95 win in Milwaukee March 22).  Jennings played 40 mins Monday and threw up 23 shots, the kind of BJ-gunning night that has become rare since John Salmons became a Buck.

If it’s beginning to sound like the Bucks haven’t shown the Hawks their true game, that’s because they really didn’t, even when Bogut was healthy. What’s going on here?

“I think the main thing was just lack of focus, even myself,” Jennings said after Monday’s loss. “We were giving up a lot of buckets and we were hanging on the screens and not fighting through anything. It was just a tough night.”

“Our whole demeanor and our body language and everything wasn’t what it normally is,” said coach Scott Skiles. “We didn’t have that passionate, intense feeling that we need to have.”

Compare that uninspired vibe to Jennings attitude after the Celtics game:

“All I can say is just sit back, get ready for the playoffs, because this is fitting to be crazy.  We’re up for it and it’s going to be a crazy series. … Boston is like the big bullies from school. A lot of teams don’t like that and a lot of teams aren’t going to back down.  Jerry (Stackhouse) told me on the court, he said ‘Watch when the playoffs come, this is shifting to be fun.’” 

PhotoThe Bucks had a pretty good idea, given the Miami Heat’s soft schedule, that the odds were heavily against them winning the 5th seed in the East. Their own schedule coming down the stretch was anything but soft. You can hardly blame the Bucks for assuming even as late as last weekend that the Celtics would win the 3rd seed and that the Heat and Hawks would be pitted in a 4 vs. 5 rematch. You can’t really blame them for failing to see the Hawks as their playoff competition. Or for losing their sense of certainty after the Celtics blew it at home against the Wizards on Sunday.

Monday found the Bucks hanging back and studying the Hawks as though playing them for the first time. And it was the first time for Jennings, Delfino, Ilyasova, playing without Bogut.

Of particular interest was the Hawks’ tendency to switch on the picks the Bucks big set up high for Jennings.  Good defensive teams (Bucks, Bobcats, Celtics, Magic) don’t switch, they fight through picks. You don’t want really want big forward/”centers” Zaza Pachulia or Al Horford on Jennings. And you don’t want Bibby switching onto Ilyasova.

It follows then, if you’re Hawks coach Mike Woodson, you don’t really think Bibby can guard Jennings either, which, of course, is the point of all the switching. 

“Nothing against Al (Horford) or Zaza (Pachulia), but if those guys are switching onto point guards and two-guards, you’ve got to make them pay.  And we didn’t do a very good job of that,” Skiles said after the Bucks uninspired effort Monday.

“If that’s what they’re going to do, we’ve got to be able to exploit that,” added John Salmons

Well, ho-hum to that.  The Hawks are an average defensive team. They give up 107 points per 100 possessions, 15th in the league, evidence that Smith can’t guard everybody. They’re the 2nd-most efficient offense, scoring 111.9 per 100, 2nd best in the NBA — yet they’re 5 points under that mark vs. the Bucks.

Bogut wasn’t exactly a force against the Hawks this season, something else to think about in this matchup. Yet still the Hawks have struggled. Bogut has played three games vs. Atlanta since Skiles took over the team — Bucks have won two of those and lost the third in overtime.

With Bogut not playing, the court levels for the Hawks, no doubt about that, but they don’t counter with a center for the Bucks to be concerned about (no, Horford’s not a center). Thinking back to the three games the Scott Skiles Bucks played vs. the Hawks last season without Bogut, the Hawks struggled while the Bucks got whatever they wanted on the offensive end. (I’m actually thinking of two of those games; the less said about the embarassing debacle in Atlanta the better, only to say that was the only game Michael Redd has played against the Hawks in two years.) The Bucks are, as Jennings said “right there” with the Hawks under any circumstances.

The wheels are turning in Milwaukee. They’d of course prefer the Goliath challenge of the Celtics front line, and the Jennings vs. Rajon Rondo matchup is one for the marquee.  

The Hawks?  That’s interesting, sure.  Of course the Bucks can outplay the Hawks, and beat them …  Ho-hum.

The Miami Heat have the same idea:  Unlike the Bucks, the Heat aren’t so eager to play the Celtics and are apparently willing to open the door for the Bucks to grab the 5th seed.  The Heat will reportedly rest Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem and Jermaine O’Neal tonight in the season finale vs. the Nets.  Tanking to 6th talk is all you’ll hear out of Miami today. 

While there’s no reason the Heat shouldn’t be able to beat the Nets without their starters and Haslem, don’t forget Friday’s Nets-Bulls fiasco. A Bucks Celtics series doesn’t seem like the long, long shot it was after Tuesday nights games. If the Bucks win in Boston and the Nets win in Miami, the Bucks go to Boston this weekend.  If the Bucks and Celtics really really want to play each other, they can make it happen.

The View from Boston:  Well, the habs needed the Bucks to beat the Hawks Monday to seal this up, but they can’t really complain.  Had they only beaten the Wiz at home Sunday, the Bucks might not have been so dejected about the playoff picture going in to the Atlanta game. The C’s are sure to be resting Garnett tonight against the Bucks … and possibly Pierce too.  Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo don’t need the rest, neither do the Bucks or Brandon Jennings.

Bucks-Celtics anyone?

Bucks Weekend: Ugly, uglier, ugliest… East playoff peek

Friday: Heat 87, Bucks 84 – MASH unit on standby.

Sunday, 2:00 p.m.: Memphis Grizzlies @ Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks-Heat game at the BC Friday night was injury marred before it started, as the Bucks played without center Andrew Bogut (strained upper back muscle) and the Turkish clutch, Ersan Ilyasova (bad case of the flu). It started ugly, with the Bucks seemingly confused off the opening tap about who was guarding Dwyane Wade. It got uglier in the 2nd quarter when Heat center Jermaine O’Neal hyperextended his right knee driving around Primoz Brezec

Then it got real ugly. Carlos Delfino was knocked to the floor on a drive and then jumped on and stepped on — hard — by Heat forward Udonis Haslem as Haslem rebounded the miss. Delfino’s neck absorbed most of the impact of the off-balance Haslem’s weight, and he lay motionless for nearly 8 minutes before being carted off the floor on a stretcher and taken to the hospital for X-rays. The lowlight reel looks like an episode of M*A*S*H. Or Rollerball meets M*A*S*H.

The preliminary prognosis for Delfino sounds OK, as he has full movement in all of his extremities. The X-rays are still pending (UPDATE: The X-rays were negative). … It’s just too improbable and rare to see a player lie on a basketball court unmoving for as long as Delfino did, then be wheeled out of the arena on a gurney. I’m kind of freaked out writing about it, and could care less that the Heat won a game that the Bucks would have preferred to end at halftime.  As of early Saturday, the Bucks injury report looks like this:

Carlos Delfino: At St. Luke’s Hospital with pain in his neck and jaw, undergoing X-rays. Should be resting for at least a couple of days.

Andrew Bogut: The muscle strain in his back “doesn’t have anything to do with what happened last year,” says Bucks coach Scott Skiles. “This is in his upper, mid-back. It’s just a strain. I can’t imagine it being very long. It’s more or less just back spasms, and normally those things don’t last very long. I’m hoping he’ll be able to play Sunday (against Memphis).”

Ersan Ilyasova:  Received IV fluids in an attempt to clear out a bad flu bug and play against Miami but had to sit out the game. Delfino received IV treatments about a week ago for the same, so the bug is apparently making its way around the Bucks locker room. This may or may not explain some of the Bucks sluggishness of late (I’m remembering the 3-9 start on the Bucks last 50-game winner, 2001; a team-wide flu bug may have calmed coach George Karl’s ire, maybe a little).  Better now than in the playoffs.

Jerry Stackhouse: No, there’s nothing wrong with his shooting arm, it’s just Stack being Stack. Against the Heat, Stackhouse shot 2-10 from the floor, sinking his shooting  % over his last 10 games to 31.1%. He missed all three of his attempts from downtown, dropping his 3-ball success rate in his last 10 to 22.5%.  The so-called “spark” is gone, GM John Hammond, but that’s nothing that Dallas Mavs fans couldn’t have told you about 35-year-old Stack before you signed him. The Bucks as a team are shooting poorly from 3-point-land and shooting too many of them in these last two losses. It’s too easy to create the obvious nicknames out of Stack’s name to highlight the problem, so let’s just say that Jerry’s not helping.

Why isn’t my blog as good as Ball Don’t Lie? I try guys, I really do. Sometimes not as hard as I could, but check this out: Highlights of Charles Barkley broadcasting the Heat blowout of the Bulls Thursday. I was watching Tennessee-Ohio State that night, sorry to admit.

A lineup change for Memphis on Sunday?: Here’s hoping that Skiles puts Charlie Bell back in the starting lineup while Delfino is recuperating. Although Bell bottled up Wade twice in three days Jan. 30 – Feb. 1 — prompting Brandon Jennings to say that it looked like the Bucks had “a D-Wade stopper” — Charlie started the game on the bench and didn’t play until Delfino went down. Bell had another “stopper” game in Nov. against the Grizzlies’ O.J. Mayo, harrassing last year’s ROY runner-up into a 6-18 shooting night (15 pts) while scoring 19 himself in the Bucks win. The Bucks won in Memphis without Bogut and Luc Mbah a Moute, who stayed in Milwaukee recovering from early season injuries (Michael Redd joined the team on its 4-game road trip after the Memphis game).

Skiles may have signalled some regret about not starting Charlie on Wade, finding it kinda remarkable that his starting defenders couldn’t keep track of one of the game’s best players on the opening tip possession, a reverse layup by Wade. “We had two guys with their backs to the play, and another guy just standing there watching,” Skiles griped in post-game interviews.  

Not having Bogut in the paint to anchor the defense didn’t help matters Friday, but if nothing else, CB would have clung to Wade like a cop short on a ticket quota (hey, it’s better than the first simile I came up with). And he’s a better 3-point shooter than the Bucks who’ve been bricking it up from the Land of Ray and Reggie as if their career shooting percentages say it’s a good idea (note that John Salmons‘ shooting numbers say that it is a good idea for him to be shooting from downtown).

East Playoff positioning: The Heat’s (39-34) win in Milwaukee pulled them within two games of the Bucks (39-32) on the loss side, and the Bobcats (38-34) beat the Wiz in Charlotte to keep pace. While the Bucks have the tie-breaker against the Heat (3-1) and a 2-1 edge on the ‘Cats, they also have the toughest remaining schedule, not a bad thing considering that the prize for finishing in 5th place in the East could be a first round matchup with the Celtics. The first round opponent could well be the Hawks, too, but winning 5th does come with one certainty — it puts the lucky winner in the Cavs’ bracket for the semifinals. Optimal for the Bucks (and for the Cats and Heat) is 6th place, a first round matchup with the Hawks at #3, with the Orlando Magic to look forward to in the semis.

Let’s take a look around the East to see where the still-positioning teams are at, something I used to do regularly in these Bucks Weekends but got away from for one reason or another, probably not good ones.

Boston Celtics: Beat the Kings easily Friday in Boston but the rest of their 5-game homestand looks like a made-for-TV ratings push by the NBA. In fact, that’s what it is: the Spurs, Kevin Durant and the Thunder, the Rockets (who’ll be watching on Final Four night, anyway?) and a Sunday marquee vs. the Lebrons. The Celtics are healthy and playing well, casting aside a lot of premature speculation that they’re finished. Not these guys. The Bucks can’t play much better than they did in beating the C’s in Milwaukee March 9, and it still took some good defense by Bogut (on Paul Pierce) on the last possession to secure the win. The Celtics have become more focused since then.

But it seems many NBA observers, and Bucks fans too, are mistaking the Celtics more lax, health conscious 2010 regular season approach as a sign of weakness. Maybe it is. They know they’re not Dwight Howard’s age anymore. But even without KG, Ray and Rondo and a tired Pierce were a tougher out for the Magic in 2009 than the Cavs.

The C’s have a two game cushion on the Hawks but a schedule tough enough to make things interesting, including two games vs. the Bucks. The Celtics could drop to 4th and the Bucks could be the team that puts them there and sets up a Milwaukee-Boston matchup in Round 1. Although Andrew Bogut plays inspired ball against the Celtics big men, trust me — the Bucks match up much better against the Hawks. 

Atlanta Hawks: Lost in Philly to the Sixers, who apparently don’t realize that they’re sacrificing lottery pings with every win. The Hawks fell to 17-19 on the road, as big a reason as there is for the Bucks, Heat and ‘Cats to prefer the Hawks over the Celtics in Round 1. Reason #2 is the Hawks mediocre, 13th-ranked defense. Number 3 is point guard Mike Bibby, a good-shooting veteran, but no Rajon Rondo, whose rabid intensity gets old quick. The Bucks get away with playing a lot of Luke Ridnour against the Hawks, something Skiles does to keep Lucky Luke’s shooting on the floor. That doesn’t fly against the Celtics, who tend to treat Ridnour like a pinball. That’s right, I’m calling the Hawks soft, apologies to Josh Smith.

Three of the Hawks’ remaining 10 games are as tough as they get: home and home against the Cavs, and a game in Atlanta vs. the Lakers. The Hawks best chance at 3rd is to win on the road in Milwaukee and Charlotte, and hope the Bucks can help them out in two games vs. KG, Ray, Pierce and Rondo. The Hawks are a game behind the Celtics on the loss side and the Celtics own the tie-breaker as Atlantic Division champs.

Miami Heat: Dwyane Wade missed a few games last month but is back with a vengeance, determined to make his teammates better on this playoff run. “I’m just trying to be a team player,” he said in Milwaukee, as if to say his Heat don’t have a chance of winning a playoff series if his young teammates don’t learn to share the burden. Michael Beasley, he’s talking about you becoming a star. And Wade is right — he’s largely responsible for Beasley’s development and success, for now. (It’s a good thing for the rest of the NBA that Kobe Bryant doesn’t share those sentiments about his Lakers.) Looming on the horizon are free agent possibilities that say this could be Wade’s last season in Miami, though right now that’s not nearly as important as center Jermaine O’Neal’s hyperextended right knee (a Bucks-Heat casualty Friday). Wade and Miami have nine games left and the 8th place Raptors are the only opponent on it not bound for the lottery. The Heat just might win out and box the Bucks down to 6th.

Charlotte Bobcats: Larry Brown‘s team is currently 2nd in NBA defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions), and did I mention this is a Larry Brown team? The ‘Cats are in the middle of a five-game homestand filled with lottery opponents until game 5 next Friday vs. the Bucks, when the season tie-breaker is on the line. Shooting guard Stephen Jackson‘s been red hot lately, All-Star Gerald Wallace continues to play like one and has become one of the more efficient scorers and best defenders in the East. Center Tyson Chandler is finally back from injury for the playoff run but Brown continues to start ex-Sixer Theo Ratliff, which is weird like all things related to the Sixers. 

I still can’t believe Brown traded one of his favorite 2001 Sixer defensive pests, Raja Bell to Golden State for Jackson. But then, Bell was hurt and the Cats are seeking their first playoff appearance in franchise history, something Brown and owner Michael Jordan really, really want. And Nellie would have given them Jackson if NBA trade rules allowed it.  If the ‘Cats lose to the Bucks April 2, it’s a two-game setback and will likely banish Charlotte to the 7th spot and a Round 1 matchup with Howard and the Magic.

Toronto Raptors: Hello Cleveland. Goodbye Chris Bosh.