Tag Archives: NBA Playoffs

More than a Slap on the Wrist: How referee Mark Davis sent the Bucks fishin’ early (and got promoted)

The slap was so loud, you could hear its echo snap throughout the arena. The fans heard it. Bucks coach Jason Kidd heard it. Bucks center Greg Monroe felt it, the smack of P.J. Tucker‘s left hand hammering down on his hands as the Bucks center secured the rebound, 9:31 to go in the game and the Bucks trailing by eight. You can hear it now still, in the Game 6 highlight reel posted on the Raptors official site, a sharp clap above the squeaky shoes and crowd noise (the play in question is at 6:40 of the video).

But NBA official Marc Davis, the ref under the basket, nearest to the play in the paint, apparently did not hear it. Davis swallowed his whistle, something he’d been doing all game where Raptors fouls were concerned. Tucker was allowed the rebound, and found Kyle Lowry free in the lane for a lay-up, making the score 76-66 (6:43 of the video).

Davis, who was named one of the three worst NBA officials in a survey of players and coaches conducted by the LA Times (*see note on survey below) during the 2015-16 season, had not called a single foul on the Raptors the entire first three quarters of Game 6. When the 4th quarter began last Thursday, the Bucks — facing elimination at home — had endured an overall 14-9 disparity in personal fouls called and were down 13 on the scoreboard.

The Toronto lead had been 25 but the Raptors were falling apart. The Bucks seized the momentum after a time out with 5 minutes to go in the 3rd, and were on a 20-3 run when Davis missed the loose ball foul on Tucker. The lead was down to eight, and now it was back to ten. A temporary setback. No big deal. But Davis would stun the Bucks and their home crowd again just 30 seconds later, making another highly questionable call that put more points on the board for the Raptors and blew the cool of Bucks coach Jason Kidd, who was hit with a technical foul — called by Davis.

So with Davis’ foul calls running 7 on the Bucks to one on the Raptors (yes, he had finally called his first foul of the game on the Raptors early in the 4th quarter, a shooting foul on Tucker) why should anybody have expected Davis to get a tough charge-block call correct on the very next Raptors possession after the slap-that-wasn’t-called?

Except this charge-block call was not so tough. As he drove for a layup with 8:40 to go, Kyle Lowry leaped into a set Khris Middleton. Middleton’s feet were planted clearly outside the circle, more planted than most defenders get when successfully taking a charge. Lowry didn’t shift to avoid the contact, and both players went down. Charge on Lowry? Not according to Davis. Foul on Middleton, Lowry to the line.

In and of itself, an official missing a charge/block call isn’t cause for alarm; it happens in nearly every game. But in the context of this play, Davis was exposed, and Bucks coach Jason Kidd reacted. Kidd this season has played it cool with the refs, maybe too cool at times. But Kidd had had enough of Davis in Game 6. Davis hit him with a technical as the Bucks home crowd jeered its disbelief.  While the Raptors shot their ensuing free throws, Kidd engaged in a lengthy discussion with referees crew chief Tony Brothers, the substance of which, one can only speculate, centered around the question of “what the hell is Davis trying to do to this game?”

The Raptors made the technical free throw but Lowry missed one of his two, pushing their lead to 12 points, 78-66 with 8:38 left in the game. Davis had put four points on the board for Toronto in less than a minute. There was still plenty of time for the Bucks, and they would score the next 14 points of the game to take an 80-78 lead and cap an improbable 34-7 run. The devastation might’ve been 34-3 or worse for the Raptors, had Davis not softened the blow of what would otherwise have been a knock-out punch.

The officials missed another key call with 1:54 to go and the score tied at 82 — a shooting foul on Patrick Patterson as Giannis Antetokounmpo wheeled into the lane for a 7-foot baby hook shot. This play was ruled “incorrect non-call” by NBA Officiating in the “Last Two-Minute Report” for the game. To view that play, click HERE.

Toronto forward Patrick Patterson pushes into Giannis Antetokounmpo as Giannis shoots over him with 1:54 left in Game 6. No foul was called on the play. NBA Official ruled that the refs made an “incorrect no-call” on this play, the correct call being a shooting foul on Patterson, two free throws for Giannis. The official on the baseline is Tony Brothers; Marc Davis is the official on the sideline. Both officials appear to have a good view of the play.

The impact of that non-call was immediate. Whether or not Giannis made his free throws (he missed 6 out of 13 on the night), the non-call allowed the Raptors to break up the court on the ensuing possession, which ended with a corner-3 made by Cory Joseph. Calling the foul would have at least slowed the flow of the game and allowed the Bucks to set up on defense, possibly with a one or two point lead. One or two points late in a close game, obviously, could have changed everything.

NBA Officiating also found enhanced video evidence that DeMar DeRozan slid his pivot foot before driving with 1:35 to go (no ruling was made on this, even though you don’t really need to enhance the video to see it — you can watch it right here); and ruled that Jason Terry fouled DeRozan on a dunk with 49.6 seconds left. Ironically, this determination was made with much less video evidence than there was for DeRozan traveling, on which there was no determination. (There’s a post on the ironic reality represented in the NBA’s “Last Two Minute Reports” coming soon.)

Everywhere one looks in this game, it seems, there is an officiating controversy brewing. Yet all three of the refs involved, Davis included, made the conference semifinals officials cut from 37 to 30. Davis and 3rd official Rodney Mott worked the Wizards-Celtics game on Tuesday. Davis is back on the job tonight in Houston for the Spurs Rockets game. What does that say about the 7 refs who didn’t make the cut? What does it say about the NBA’s officials review process?

But before we take a closer look at other parts of Bucks-Raptors Game 6, it should be mentioned that Davis, after being named one of the three worst refs in league in the LA Times survey, was the official who stood by watching as Dion Waiters and Manu Ginobili committed multiple violations on the last play of Game 2 of the Spurs-Thunder first round series last year.  To quote deadspin.com on that play “all hell broke loose” and the rulebook went out the window.

Bucks-Raptors Game 6 official Marc Davis (#8 above) was the ref who swallowed his whistle during one of the most notorious playoffs officiating fiascos in recent years. On the inbound play of the last possession of Game 2 of the Thunder-Spurs semifinal series, Dion Waiters of the Thunder illegally shoves the Spurs’ Manu Ginobili from out of bounds, as Ginobili tries to get away with illegally violating the inbound space. In the foreground, Kawhi Leonard has a handful of Russell Westbrook‘s jersey. No calls were made on the play. AP photo.

Whistles in the 1st quarter send a confusing mixed message

Considering how difficult it’s been for the referees to draw a technical foul out of Kidd this season, those four points midway through the Bucks run were writ large on the outcome of Game 6 as the Raptors scrapped out the win, 92-89, ending the Bucks season. That Davis did not call a single foul on the Raptors during the first 36.52 of the game, certainly raises some questions. The Raptors 9 to 14 foul call advantage as they built a seemingly insurmountable 25-point lead raises more questions. The non-call on the Patterson shooting foul under two minutes was key. Davis’ preceding reputation is interesting to point out, but Tony Brothers, the official along the baseline on that play, could also have made the call.

Does it all add up to the conclusion that the Bucks were robbed of a game 7 opportunity? Bucks fans would probably say it does, others might suggest that the Bucks had their chances and couldn’t close the game out, which was certainly true. The Bucks had an 82-80 lead with 2:29 left to play. The Bucks certainly could have won Game 6 in spite of Davis, in spite of the non-called fouls, and despite problems of their own in the 2nd and 3rd quarters, such as missed open shots and free throws throughout as Toronto built its lead.

A closer view of Game 6, however, does add more grist for the idea that, in the very least, a Game 7 in Toronto would have been played but for the refs. Whatever can be said, Game 6 from the outset was not well-managed by the officiating crew, and let’s start there.

The Game 6 refs were not short on experience, and all three are on the current officials roster for the semi-final round of the playoffs. Tony Brothers was the crew chief, with Davis and 3rd official Rodney Mott. Together they combined 63 seasons of experience and 39 playoffs. Davis is a 19-year veteran and Mott has 20 years on the job.

Davis’ whistle blew the most often in the game, with all of his calls against the Raptors made in the 4th quarter, and all but one after he issued a technical foul on Kidd.

Source: NBA.com, Raptors-Bucks play-by-play, 04/27/17. Chart graphic added to post 5/12/17                                           Note: Goaltending against Bucks, John Henson, 2nd quarter (called by Davis).

As you can see, the whistles stopped blowing against the Raptors after the 1st quarter, when at one point the violations were 6 against Toronto, 2 on Milwaukee.

  • The quarter began with Brothers hitting Raptors center Serge Ibaka with a  quick foul trying to guard a driving Giannis Antetokounmpo and another on Ibaka guarding center Thon Maker. This forced Raptors coach Dwane Casey to sit Ibaka down 2:16 seconds into the game. Ibaka returned to start the 2nd quarter.
  • Mott then called a rare defensive 3-second violation (the rule few understand) on Ibaka’s replacement, Jonas Valanciunas, though Brothers offset that Bucks free throw by immediately calling an offensive foul on Middleton.
  • From 6:18 to go in the 1st quarter to 11:08 of the 4th quarter — 31:10 — the calls ran 12 against the Bucks to only 4 on Toronto, as the Bucks fell behind by 25.
  • Davis and Brothers combined called 1 foul on Toronto in the middle two quarters. One.
  • Davis called 0 fouls on the Raptors for the three quarters. (It still doesn’t seem possible, but it happened. Those zeroes can’t help but look bad for the league. — 5/12/17 edit 

P.J. Tucker grapples with Greg Monroe. Tucker, a tank-like forward who makes up for his size with physical play, tends to commit so many violations on the court that the referees are bound to miss a few.  License: Standard noncommercial purpose/use.

A blocking foul on Tucker was the Raptors fifth team foul in the 1st quarter, which put the Bucks in the bonus with half of the first quarter still to play. At this point, the message seemed to be that it was going to be a long night for the Raptors; the visitors weren’t going to be allowed to bully the Bucks out of the playoffs on their home court.

It seemed a fair message, given how even the series was been statistically, save for the Raptors big advantage in free throws attempted and made. A Game 7 was the logical conclusion. But Davis apparently had ideas of his own. The rest of the calls made in the 1st quarter of Game 6 — most of them by Davis — went against the Bucks.

The first call was made by Mott, the first foul on Monroe. Then came four straight by Davis, including Monroe’s 2nd foul, a highly questionable loose ball foul that seemed little more than an obvious attempt to even the score with Ibaka’s two fouls. The call prompted coach Kidd to take Monroe — who put up big impact numbers against the Raptors (a series-leading 16.29 BIER) — out of the game. Monroe would not return in the first half, a decision by Kidd that, if it didn’t open the door for the Raptors double digit lead, it at least altered the complexion of the game.

Davis wasn’t done yet. He called a shooting foul on Monroe’s replacement, shot-blocker John Henson, on Henson’s first possession. With 23 seconds to go, Davis put the Raptors on the line with the 5th Bucks team foul, a call on the floor against defensive specialist Tony Snell, sending Raptors star Demar Derozan to the line. Two free points for Derozan, and the quarter ended with the Raptors ahead, 28-24.

The Bucks had the edge early on, but Davis had helped even the score. In the very least, the 1st quarter officiating sent a confusing message and offered some relief to the Raptors. Davis had given them a break on the road, they had the lead, and the Bucks 2nd best player, Monroe, was on the bench with foul trouble.

Lowry in the land of the giants. Thon Maker (left) and Giannis Antetokounmpo surround Toronto’s Kyle Lowry in the paint. Lowry, listed at 6’0″, is small even by point guard standards, but seems microscopic here, swarmed by 7-footers. Great photo by AP’s Nathan Denette that probably won’t be here for long. License: Standard noncommercial purpose/use.

Looking for a motive – natural bias and recent Davis trends

There is more than ample evidence, a compounding of events not all circumstantial, that leads to the conclusion that the Bucks were wronged by the Game 6 officiating crew and by Davis in particular. But why? What would motivate a ref to tip the balance in a game to deny the Bucks a Game 7, given that, if anything, what the NBA and its media desire (in theory) would be a do-or-die 7th game played in Canada’s largest media market (2.85 million pop, twice the size of the Milwaukee area market).

If the Bucks engender any bias against them it’s due to the lack of success in recent history, their last playoff series win having been 16 years ago with the Sam-I-Am, Big Dog and Ray team, or before most teen-aged Bucks fans were born. In Game 6, however, the Bucks had the natural edge being the home team, and being the home team counts for something in the NBA (where home teams win 57-60% of the time) and in the Big Ten and just about anywhere in the world one plays basketball. Add to this the “Game 7 media theory” and the perception was that the Bucks had a certain advantage going into Game 6.

The Bucks had jumped out to an early lead as Antetokounmpo forced the action, scored 12 points and shot five free throws in the first six minutes. One theory this season as Giannis’ star rose high and the Bucks relied on him to do just about everything except make the locker room sandwiches, has been that The Greek Freak constitutes unfair advantage. At times, certain referees will make calls against the Bucks to balance the scales. This may have been what Davis had in mind the last half of the first quarter. Unfortunately for the Bucks, Davis went too far by dumping foul trouble on Monroe and throwing the game out of balance.

The Bucks are not as deep as the Raptors at center. The Raptors can readily go to Valanciunas, usually a more reliable player and stronger center than Ibaka, and not worry about losing ground. They proved that in Game 6. The Bucks have Henson, a 5th year project that was all but abandoned in the second half of the season. Jason Kidd can’t take the risks Dwane Casey can at the center position. The absence of Monroe, statistically the Bucks biggest per-minute impact player in the series, crippled the Bucks in the first half.

The second call against Monroe did not appear to be circumstantial, nor were the non-calls in the 4th quarter, or Davis’ apparent glaring refusal to call any fouls on the Raptors during the first three quarters of the game.  Compounded, these instances draw the conclusion that something was amiss with Davis.  A different referee for Game 6, and the Bucks and Raptors play Game 7 in Toronto, Saturday, April 29.

Not sure of the what , but that’s Marc Davis above. “Effective pregame advice” might be … don’t even try to fathom the bottomless pit of referee motivations. From Peachtree Hoops.

Referee Stats!

In a different information age not so long ago, I’d have to leave it at that. Here comes the summation about how, for the love of the game, the paranoia about the refereeing in the NBA, justified or not, is not good for anybody. When a society no longer trusts its judges, what then becomes of the social fabric? Davis should be handed a stern warning by someone not named Stern, the former commissioner who made every small market team in the NBA nervous except the one in San Antonio.

But in this information age, the NBA and its ever-advancing statistical society have provided stats and trends for each and every referee! Exciting stuff. Marc Davis stats can be found here at basketball-reference.com. And from what those numbers say, a home vs. road theory can be built to explain why Davis was so tough on the Bucks in Game 6.

Two things stand out in Davis’ stat charts. The first is a trend over the last three seasons that shows fewer fouls than average called in the games he works, a range of 2.5 to 3 fewer fouls since 2014. That certainly held true for the Raptors in Game 6 but not for the Bucks, where Davis went against his usual m.o. and called more fouls than the other officials and more than he would normally call.

The average number of personal fouls per team in this year’s playoffs so far has been 19.7 per game (or 6 or 7 calls per official per team; it had increased to 20.3 pfs per team as of 5/12). Davis called 9 personal fouls on the Bucks.

The other outstanding trend has been an up and down relationship to the NBA’s home court advantage (a fairly consistent win rate of about 60% for the home teams). Home court advantage seems to be out the window when Davis is working. In the 2014 season, the visitors won 47% of Davis’ games. In 2015 the visitors won 50% of the time – a 15% variation from the norm. So the road teams have done well when Davis is managing the game. This is no doubt confusing to the home players, which may in part explain his “NBA worst officials” dishonor.

But hold on – the trend completely reversed itself wildly in the 2016 season, and home teams won 65% of Davis’ games. Whether a memo was issued to Davis is unknown, of course, the process of reviewing officials being top secret stuff — but there have never appeared to be any repercussions for bad or incompetent officiating. Whatever the cause, this was a 27.7% swing from the previous season, the highest of Davis’ career. This season, Davis’ trend swung even more wildly back in favor of the visiting teams.

In 2017, the visitors won 54% of 65 games officiated by Davis. The league trend was 60/40 in favor of the home teams. That’s a 24.4% divergence from the average the highest of Davis’ career.

Now let’s look at this season’s playoffs. Coming into the Bucks-Raptors game, the home team had won all five of the games in which Davis worked. Is it possible that Davis had decided a victory by a road team was due, and the Bucks were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong referee? Maybe.

Wizards-Celtics Game 2: Marc Davis’ next game

[I took the Wizards-Celtics analysis and the notes below and made a stand-alone post, “More than a Slap on the Wrist, Part 2: Wizards-Celtics Game 2, throwing the rule book out the window”  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read the notes (they’re really good notes), but the post has two videos and a two-tone chart, just so you know.]

Davis and Mott officiated the Wizards vs. Celtics Game 2 in Boston Tuesday with Tom Washington as third official. The Davis trends suggest that the Wizards, the road team, have a good chance of winning the game. This was a tough, physical game (the Celtics like to bully the opposition) that went into overtime and featured 50 personal fouls called — 29 against the Wizards, 21 against the Celtics (about average considering the OT).

Here’s how the 50 calls broke down per official:

  • Davis: 16 or 32% of calls, 8 per team
  • Mott: 17 or 34%, 9/17 on the Wizards
  • Washington: 17 or 34%, 12/17 on Wizards

First thing to note is Davis calling fewer fouls than the other officials, part of the trend that emerges for Davis over the last six seasons.

Below is the breakdown by quarter:

  • Boston was hit with the most fouls in the first quarter (7) but only 14 the rest of the game, including the overtime, below the average in the playoffs so far this season.
  • Nine fouls were called on the Wizards in the 2nd, as all three officials unleashed their whistles on the Washington bench.
  • Six fouls vs. the Wizards in the 3rd quarter, only 2 on Boston. (The Wizards were threatening to blow the game open middle of the 3rd quarter).
  • Fourth quarter & Overtime – 9 on the Wiz, 7 on the Celtics.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the referees helped keep Boston in the game, though Davis was the least involved in that. 3rd official Tom Washington’s 12 to 5 call disparity in favor of the Celtics is hard to ignore. If Davis leaned to the visitors, Washington more than made up for that, a reminder that it’s difficult for a ref to wire a game with two other officials on the court with him/her.

The Wizards went cold from the outside in the 3rd quarter after they had built a 13 point lead that was still 12 with 3:20 to play in the quarter. Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal had a horrific game (4-15 shooting, 6 turnovers). The Wizards also had opportunities on the last possession of the 4th quarter to win the game, but Beal and John Wall misfired on open looks.  Isaiah Thomas heroically torched the nets in the overtime and scored 53 points on his late sister’s birthday. Thomas also made the free throws that tied the game and forced the overtime (Mott made that rather questionable call – see NBA Official video here).

As for Davis, other than keeping to his trends of, 1) calling fewer fouls; and 2) making things tough on the home team (fewest calls against the visiting Wizards), a call he chose not to make in the 1st quarter helped the Wizards later on. During the opening minutes of the game Wizards PF Markieff Morris threw Al Horford into the sideline area as Horford tried to save a loose ball (this was retaliation for a foul in Game 1 that caused Morris to sprain an ankle). Davis called a loose ball foul on Morris but, for reasons unclear, did not issue a flagrant foul (1 or 2) technical to Morris as called for in the NBA rule book. Had he done so, Morris would have been tossed from the game in the 3rd quarter when he and Thomas were T’d up after a confrontation.

What Davis did do in the wake of Morris’ retaliation – on the Celtics next possession – was call an offensive foul on Celtics big man Amir Johnson. Can it really be that the NBA doesn’t look at this stuff?

*Note on LA TImes Survey: The “best officials” survey was anonymous, involving 36 current players, coaches and assistant coaches. Each participant was asked to name a best and worst referee. Scott Foster (24 votes) was voted worst; Lauren Holtkamp was next (14 votes); and Davis, with 12 votes, was voted 3rd worst.

Here are the anonymous survey comments about Davis, published in the LA Times story January 30, 2016:

“He’s cool as they come, but he’s so arrogant,” one player said. “He instigates things sometimes. Marc will go back at a player. He forgets that he’s talking to another man. Don’t challenge a man’s manhood. Now you are going too far.”

“Marc Davis is hands down the worst,” a player said. “He acts likes he’s your friend, but he’ll just screw you. He’ll screw you and he’ll get the biggest attitude about it.”

Danny Crawford was voted “best official” (30 votes). Joey Crawford (no kidding) was next best (25 votes). Crawford retired after last season, which I suppose makes Monty McCutchen (13 votes) the 2nd best ref in the league.

Other sources: This post was edited to include the “Last Two Minute” reports from Raptors-Bucks and Wizards Celtics, and their findings, as well as other source material from NBA Official. Other main source material is from either Basketball-reference.com or NBA.com.

  • Bucks-Raptors Game 6 highlights, NBA.com/raptors:  http://www.nba.com/raptors/video/teams/raptors/2017/04/28/1493347703009-nba-web-170427-gamehighlights-1396692/
  • Bucks-Raptors Game 6 broadcast, Fox Sports North, analyst Marques Johnson.
  • Bucks-Raptors Game 6 play-by-play: http://www.nba.com/games/20170427/TORMIL#/pbp
  • Bucks-Raptors series stats: http://www.basketball-reference.com//playoffs/2017-nba-eastern-conference-first-round-bucks-vs-raptors.html
  • 2017 NBA season stats: http://www.basketball-reference.com/leagues/NBA_2017.html#all_team-stats-per_game
  • 2017 NBA playoff stats: http://www.basketball-reference.com/playoffs/NBA_2017.html#all_all_team_stats
  • Deadspin, “Thunder-Spurs Game 2:
  • 2016-17 NBA rulebook: https://ak-static.cms.nba.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2016/11/2016-2017-Rule-Book-Final.pdf
  • Referee assignments: http://official.nba.com/referee-assignments/
  • Playoff officials selection process: http://official.nba.com/playoff-officials-selection-process/
  • Last Two Minute Report: http://official.nba.com/nba-last-two-minute-reports-archive/
  • Playoff officials roster: http://official.nba.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2017/05/2016-17-NBA-Referee-Headshots-Conference-Semifinals-1.pdf
  • Radio Media Markets: http://www.radio-media.com/markets/main.html

Now that Vince Carter’s awake

Are the 2010 Celtics better than the 2008 championship team?  They might be, despite the wear and tear on The Big Three (as undetectable as wear and tear may be on Ray Allen).  These days, there’s as much reason to talk about the other Allen, forward Tony.

Rajon Rondo‘s certainly a lot better than the guy that Delonte West didn’t bother to guard in the 2008 Cavs-Celtics series.  Rasheed Wallace is a better big man off the bench than P.J. Brown or Leon Powe. Of course.  Glen “Big Baby” Davis is a wrecking ball off the bench, and a couple of years removed from 2008 when he looked raw and uncomfortable on the court, like he didn’t know the plays. Big Baby has improved each season since the title.  Michael Finley?  Nice guy to have around as a 9th man. 

Factor in a finally healthy Tony Brown having a breakout playoff run, and the supporting cast in Boston circa 2010 is hands down better than the guys who helped the Big Three win it all in 2008. And they’ve all been tested by the rigors of a couple of injury plagued seasons.

Still, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce can be good for 47 combined points on any given night or day, as they were in Sunday in Orlando.  When that happens the C’s are near impossible to beat, Game 1 and home court advantage to Boston, 92-88.

Somebody might want to wake Vince Carter up before the East Finals are over.

“I think it was a wake-up call that we really needed. Now it’s what are we going to do about it? How do we respond?” — Carter after Game 1.

Count me as one who never thought the Magic could win it all with VC at shooting guard.  They won’t, not this year anyway.

Thanks go to the NBA blog Both Teams Played Hard  for the photo.

And if you get a chance, do take a look at Dwyer’s Behind the Box Score entry on Celtics-Magic Game 1.

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.

Bucks-Hawks Game 4: Learning to “Fear the Deer” in the paint

Fear the DeerIt’s hard to hold your head up when “Fear” is in your new slogan and your team fails to show up, as the Bucks failed to do in Game 2.   But with a dominating 107-89 Game 3 victory behind the deer, Bucks fans can once again say it with pride. 

I can appreciate that John Salmons (22 pts on 11 shots) will not shoot 9-11 from the field in Game 4 tonight. But that’s not the sort of thing I focus on when I’m analyzing games, nor was the Bucks shooting ever a reason to “Fear the Deer.”  (The soft on D, good-to-even-“great” shooters were traded out of Milwaukee in GM John Hammond* and coach Scott Skiles’ first summer on the job.)

The main reason the Hawks should “Fear the Deer” (other than the nagging internal Hawk concerns about team mental stability) is the Bucks ever-evolving strategy(s) for managing the Hawks young frontline. Looking to Game 4 tonight (7:30 p.m.) and beyond, the prospects of the Bucks big men getting stonger and more confident against Josh Smith and Al Horford seem pretty good. It may even be safe to buy a “Fear the Deer” t-shirt or two for the summer.* 

“Fear the Deer,”  Josh Smith and Al Horford.  The Bucks are serious about controlling the paint in this series, and they seem capable of doing it without Andrew Bogut.  Neither Horford or Smith got more than a bucket or two in post-up Saturday, which isn’t really that surprising. While the Hawks duo did some early damage in Game 1 in post-up (off Joe Johnson feeds), most of their scoring has been on lob plays (Smith); layups and dunks off turnovers. They haven’t been killing the Bucks in contested post situations. 

The unchallenged shots were the problem (and a Skiles focused prior to Game 3) so it was a matter of the Bucks big men locking in against Smith and Horford. Bucks defender-at-large Luc Mbah a Moute started the game on Smith for the first time in the series.

Centers Kurt Thomas (6’10”) and Dan Gadzuric (6’11”) took turns on 23-year-old Horford, at 6’9″-6’9.5″, an undersized center who makes up for it with the quickness and spring.  Thomas, at age 37, truly needs 32-year-old Gadzuric in relief to get this done, and all of his accumulated tricks of the trade.  

Horford scored 10 pts on 5-9 shooting Saturday and was limited to just 3 boards in 31 mins. Hawks 6th man Jamal Crawford, a guard, had more defensive boards than Horford did in Game 3. And those rebounds were just about the only things that Crawford did right or well all game.

Thomas (13 rebs) and Gadzuric (10 rebs in 17 mins) hauled down 23 boards combined in just under 43 mins.  They kept their man, Horford, off the glass, and had him locked down most of the game.

Note on Gadzuric:  Much maligned and overpaid Gadz has scarcely played all year, and the Hawks have probably made a critical mistake in allowing him to get some confidence andgame going (for the first time all season). Atlanta is a team prone to mental lapses, and going to sleep on Gadz was a big one that could have some carry-over.  Game 4, keep an eye on Gadz.  

Smith vs. Mbah a Moute:  The Bucks defensive stopper was deployed on Smith exclusively in the first half Saturday and Josh got no easy looks — despite crashing the offensive glass to the tune of NINE offensive boards for the game.  Smith had 12 rebs and 7 pts but was 2-12 from the floor (3-6 from the line). It was a good reminder of how limited Smith’s offensive game can be — if there’s a defender on hand good enough to challenge his shots.

Luc Mbah a Moute:  He brings a Dennis Rodman-like swagger to  defensive play, almost an arrogance; Luc’s success this series on Hawks All-Star Joe Johnson is chronicled here. Smith won’t beat Luc often in the half court. The damage the Hawks’ mercurial star inflicts is usually junk — easy stuff off turnovers and rebounds and lobs from Johnson. Mbah a Moute, despite his ever growing reputation as one of the league’s great defenders, has to do a better job of keeping track of Smith (the offensive glass) …  should Skiles continue to deploy him on the Smith assignment.

Taking it right at Smith: Mbah a Moute, a long-armed 6’8″, is taller than the 6’7″ Smith.  He’s just as quick, if not quicker, though he doesn’t jump out of the building quite like Josh (who does?).  Mbah a Moute scored 12 pts in Game 3 on 5-7 shooting – all of it in close.  He took it right to the rim against Smith and Marvin Williams, and was long enough and quick enough to avoid Smith’s flying blocks. Incidentally, Luc had a layup taken off the scoreboard when Smith was floored as Luc ran him into a Thomas pick in the lane. Smith stayed down for a moment to catch his breath and came up limping. The play seemed to symbolize how the day was going (and went) for the Hawks.

Note: Smith was runner-up to Dwight Howard in the Defensive Player of the Year balloting, which was a surprise. (I thought the Celtics Rajon Rondo, the NBA steals leader, was a shoe-in for #2, considering that he spearheads the Celtics Top 5-rated defense.)  Smith was the only player in the NBA with more than 100 steals (130) and 100 blocks (173).  Statistically, the Hawks D is at least an estimated 5-7 points stingier when he’s in the game, quite a lot when you think about it.  But it also highlights how poor some of the other Hawks are on D (guards Bibby and Crawford in particular). Andrew Bogut was 7th in the DPOY vote.

Enter Ersan: Ersan Ilyasova has been a scoring and rebounding machine off the Bucks bench. John Hollinger would be salivating over his production.  Check out Ilyasova’s line: 

11.7 pts, 8.7 rebs … in 23. 3 mins! …   Ersan’s offensive rebounding percentage through 3 games is 19.1, a playoffs-leading mark. His overall rebounding rate (% of available rebounds) is right behind playoff leader Joakim Noah’s.   The Bucks 6’9″ forward has a knack for being exactly where opponents least want him to be, taking charges, tipping rebounds, cleaning up loose plays under the hoop.

Ilyasova has been in a shooting groove this series (over 60%, effectively), and is a bonafide matchup problem for the Hawks.  Smith, naturally, is the Hawks best defender to check Ersan but Smith can’t guard everybody on the floor, nor is he on the court for 48 mins (same problem for the Bucks and Mbah a Moute).  So far, Skiles has maximized his power forward almost perfectly off the bench, and while expanding his minutes would help defensively, it could diffuse Ilyasova as an offensive weapon. A couple of few more minutes than the 21-24 we’ve seen, though, probably wouldn’t hurt.

Zaza Pachulia:  Horford’s backup is a savvy big man who sometimes is more effective than Horford (though less and less so). The Bucks would be wise not to overlook him.   Zaza was 6 of 7 in the post Saturday, and had a lot to do with the Hawks reeling in the score during garbage time.

Stackhouse and Delfino: They were a combined 5 of 20 from the field Saturday and turned it over SIX TIMES.  True, Del hit two key shots from Downtown to squelch the Hawks 3rd quarter run to cut into the Bucks lead. Those were Hawks demoralizers considering that he hadn’t made one from out there in the first ten quarters of the series. Maybe those shots will snap him out of this slump hes been in, but so far Del has been a negative impact offensive player in this series.  …. The Bucks got away with some sloppy play on Saturday, and some better, efficient play from Stack and Del would probably have the Hawks fighting an uphill battle in Game 4.

Notes from Atlanta:  Found this on Peachtree Hoops, a site “for Atlanta Hawks fans.”

 “The Hawks have averaged a margin of defeat of over (20) points per road playoff loss over the last three seasons. That’s no aberration, folks—that’s a full blown habit.”

Firing Mike Woodson?   The last time that Mike Woodson coached a playoff game as close as Bucks-Hawks Game 1 was May 2, 2008 against the Celtics in Atlanta.  …  (No, that wasn’t the “Dammit RAY” game 4 (April 28 – when Joe Johnson scored 25).  All three Celtics-Hawks games in Atlanta were pretty close. The four games in Boston were blowouts.)   How tough can the Hawks be away from home?  The evidence and history suggests that they’re mentally impaired and unfocused away from their “highlight dome” in Atlanta.

Marvin Williams:  Why doesn’t anybody talk about Marvin Williams?

NOT SO BOLD PREDICTION:  I wasn’t surprised by Saturday’s blowout — in fact I expected it at some point during this series. I was more surprised by Skiles’ inability to recognize his team after the Bucks’ lackluster Game 2 play.   Game 4 will be a battle for the interior, with Mbah a Moute’s defense continuing to be a major theme, as well as Skiles’ dedication to his bigger rotations.  After three games in the negative, the Bucks should be able to count on some positive production from Delfino.  The Bucks will hold their own in the paint and win the 50-50 hustle plays late to even up the series 2-2 heading back to Atlanta for Game 5. 

*Bucks GM John Hammond won NBA executive of 2009-10, a vote held among the executives.  This happened a couple of days ago, so a belated comment should be short.  A lot of what ends up happening on this site is that I try to write behind commonly held perceptions about the Bucks or the NBA in general, basketball, too.  One of my least favorite perceptions is that Jerry Stackhouse and John Salmons saved the day and made this Bucks team what it has become. They didn’t, obviously, and the contributions of Stackhouse, in particular, have been overstated by both the Bucks and media in Milwaukee. The additions probably won the award for Hammond, and continue to reside in the realm of “the Bucks lost Michael Redd and …”  Let’s not forget that a lot of what Hammond has done to date has been hit or miss, and that the Bucks are simply a better team with Redd out of the picture.  The GM is a subject whose scrutiny is more properly drawn after the playoffs.

* The “Fear the Deer” t-shirts are the design of Bucks fan Dan Warfield, who wanted one but couldn’t find a place online to buy — so he made his own. The shirts are available through the DIY site, Cafe Press, which offers some nice organic/”green” shirt options.  (And, no, I don’t have any financial interest in the sale of t-shirts — I just think it’d be pretty cool to see Bucks fans representing this summer and into next season.  Fear the Deer!!!

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.

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 brutal remaining schedule scares fan into rooting for Raptors

With 7:38 to play in the 4th quarter Sunday and the Memphis Grizzlies threatening to pull away from the seemingly exhausted, flat-shooting Bucks, Andrew Bogut and Brandon Jennings stalked onto the court from the sidelines with such determination and focus that anyone who saw it might have declared the game over right then and there.

Kurt Thomas, who had just turned the ball over by committing an offensive foul, headed for the bench, and Jerry Stackhouse, mired in an 11-game shooting funk (1-6 Sunday) that looks too business-as-usual to be called a slump, headed for the bench. Not to put the blame on those two reserves, both of them nearly old enough to be Brandon Jennings’ paw. The Bucks slide began late in the 3rd quarter with BJ and AB in the game and the Bucks in the process of making an 8-point lead vanish.  They were down 5 went Bogut and Jennings returned to the game. A 17-footer by Rudy Gay on the ensuing possession made it 85-78.  Coach Scott Skiles called time.  Enough was enough, time to see if Ersan Ilyasova, Luke Ridnour and John Salmons were into the game or not. They didn’t have much choice in the matter.

A rejuvinated Jennings quicked double-time into the pace of the Bucks offense, driving twice for layups. Luke Ridnour drove for one of his own. Salmons shot wasn’t flat anymore, Jennings was flying in for third layup and Ilyasova made the crowd forget about the airballs he had earlier tossed in zombie-like fashion from 3-point land.

Meanwhile Bogut challenged Memphis shots, took a charge on Gay, tapped back an offensive rebound, ate space in the paint and the Bucks found themselves clinging to a 94-92 lead in the final seconds.

The refs were apparently enjoying this spirited test of wills by the NBA’s new and interesting so much they didn’t want it to end. A phantom foul called on Jennings sent Mike Conley to the foul line to tie the game, which he did, and it went into OT tied at 94.   Check it out:

Didn’t touch him, did he? 

The Bucks, dog-tired in the 3rd quarter, seemed like the younger team in overtime (which they’re not, Jennings excepted).  They also made sure to get Bogut involved in the offense, and he delivered a running hook that served to collapse the Griz defense for the next few possessions, and that’s all it took.  The Bucks had open looks all over the court and wide open lanes to the hoop. They might have pulled away earlier than they eventually did but for a Gasol block of yet another layup by Jennings and a fluke step-out turnover by Ilyasova (refereeing at any level’s not supposed to be that good — it happened so fast it was difficult to see Ersan step out of bounds even in slo-mo replay, right though the ref was. Crazy.)

The Griz finally cracked, Zach Randolph got hit with a couple of dumb fouls trying to crash the boards, and the Bucks shot free throws to the 108-03 final. This turned into one of the better games of the season, and not because the Bucks schedule is so brutal the rest of the way that it was almost a must-win game. I said it when the Bucks stole the game in Sacramento and I’ll write it again — this was not a game the Bucks would have won 3 months ago.  

Bogut and Jennings willed this game into the win column. The knowledge that they can do this makes being a Bucks fan a hopeful fan to be with their first playoff together fast approaching. Jennings led the Bucks with a near triple double: 29 pts, 7 rebs and 8 assists. Bogut added 18 pts, 11 boards. And Salmons shot his way to 25. Ridnour refound his hyper-efficient groove and added 14 pts, 6 assists off the Bucks bench.

The Grizzlies starting five is fun to watch. Third-year-pro Conley, from the 2007 Final Four Ohio State team (Greg Oden) is at point; last season’s ROY runner-up Mayo is the shooter; UConn star Rudy Gay (2006 draft) is averaging 20 pts per game at small forward; there’s beastly 28-year-old Randolph (Michigan State) at big forward (31 pts, 15 rebs Sunday) and, at center, Marc Gasol, 25, younger brother of Laker Pau, but tougher and not complaining about Kobe’s refusals to pass the ball.

The Griz are 38-35 in Lionel Hollins’ first full season as the coach, as opposed to the interim/acting stints he’s served for the team in the past. Hollins was an assistant on Scott Skiles’ staff last season before returning to the Griz. That half-season in Milwaukee was the only NBA job outside the Grizzlies’ organization Hollins has held since the franchise came into the league as the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1995. Up until 2008, Hollins had coached in one capacity or another ever single game in Grizzlies franchise history, beginning as an assistant to Brian Winters at the dawn of Grizzlie time in the NBA. (Winters’ retired #32 Bucks jersey is hanging from the Bradley Center rafters).  There’s a post way back in the BBJ archives about Hollins, written when Skiles hired him in May of 2008, and you should click here to read more about it.  Hollins is a great coach and if yesterday’s game was any indication, he’s got the Grizzlies moving in the right direction. The Bucks were lucky to have him here for the time that they did.

“I have no problems or worries about how we are going to finish the season,” Hollins said after the game. “But I told them if you have this kind of focus and effort, you are going to win a lot of games and we are going to have a good finish.”

Yeah they are. And it looks as though they’re going to be tough to beat for years to come. 

Are the Chicago Bulls serious about getting into the playoffs or is Detroit really this bad?  The Bulls have nothing to lose — GM John Paxson agreed to swap picks with the Bucks as part of the Salmons trade, providing that the Bucks finish with a better record than the Bulls. That will happen. There’s no sense in the Bulls tanking so the Bucks can have the extra pings, so they play on.  While pondering this and other things, reading the Bulls-Pistons game recap at yahoo.com/nba, my eyes fell upon this little factoid in the “Notes” section:

Detroit is 2-14 against the Central Division, with both wins coming against Milwaukee. Besides being swept by the Bulls for the first time in 14 years, they were swept by Indiana for the first time in franchise history. The Bulls have beaten the Pistons 7 straight times.

Yes, the Pistons are that bad. Earlier today I saw a headline on the Journal Sentinel website about “Villanueva” and a possible “demotion.” I hit the link, curious to find out the latest bunk on Charlie Villanueva only to find that it was only Brewers pitcher Carlos Villanueva trying to convince a reporter that the possibility of being sent down to the minors doesn’t bother him. For a second there, I thought the Pistons were considering sending Charlie V to the D-League for some shot selection boot camp. How did the Bucks lose twice to those guys?

In MIAMI —  A big comeback by the Heat in the 4th quarter commandeers a game the Raptors had well in hand. Chris Bosh and team appear lost as Dwyane Wade makes play after play, asserting the inevitable.  That’s the good news. The bad news is that the 35-37 Raptors were the only team remaining on the Heat schedule that had any chance at a playoff spot. All that’s left now are 8 teams fighting for pings, and the Heat have a scaaaaaaary 3-game road trip coming up that takes them to Detroit, Indiana and Minnesota, their only departure from the dregs of the East. The Heat have won five in a row and are 40-34, just two games behind the Bucks (40-32) on the loss side. The Bucks hold the tie-breaker but D-Wade wants the #5 playoff seed.

The Bucks, meanwhile, hope Carlos Delfino recovers nicely from the neck and jaw injuries he suffered agains the Heat Friday and are battling a flu bug (Ersan took IV treatment a couple of days ago and now Charlie Bell is sick). Bogut seems OK after missing Friday’s game with a muscle problem in his upper back, and he’s just in time for a rematch Tuesday against Clippers center Chris Kaman, who had 20 against the Bucks in L.A. without his feet ever leaving the floor. 

After that, six of the Bucks last nine games are against teams fighting for playoff spots or position.  Team # 7  is the Lebrons on Wednesday in Cleveland, not fighting for anything really but wouldn’t mind mathematically eliminating the Lakers from contention for home court advantage throughout the playoffs, the sooner the better.  Zydrunas “Big Z” Ilgauskas, made his big return from 30-day buyout exile last night against Sacramento.

Game 8 is at Philly, where the Revenge of the Airball seems a vendetta without end.

Game 9, April 7, features the hopeless crusade of the 2010 New Jersey Nets. But it happens to be the second game of one of four back-to-backs coming up for the Bucks and has “weird things are going to happen in this game written all over it.”  

For the moment, the Bucks play four games in five days, are tasked with winning the tie breaker against 7th place Charlotte Bobcats (38-34) in Charlotte on Friday, a game certain to be a nasty defensive struggle against Larry Brown’s team. It always is. The Bucks then jet home to face Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudamire (got the apostrophe this time) and the red-hot Phoenix Suns Saturday. It’ll be the Suns 5th game this week, too, and they’re fighting for home court advantage in Round 1 of the West playoffs.

Given the Heat’s pushover schedule, it’s looking more and more probable that the Bucks are destined for the 6th seed — if they can hold off Charlotte in 7th. The Cats have won 7 of their last 10 games, have a much easier schedule than the Bucks and tonight host Chris Bosh’s Raptors, fresh off their 4th quarter stinker yesterday in Miami. The Bucks need to go at least 5-5 through this ten game gautlet, with one of the wins seizing the season series and the tie-breaker from Charlotte.*

For the first time in the history of the Raptors franchise, I find myself rooting for them. Let’s see if it does any good.

*In the event the Bucks lose and the Charlotte season series knots at 2-2, the next tiebreaker is conference  division record.

After a whole bunch of nonsense that I just deleted, the bottom line is that the Bobcats are very much in striking range of the Bucks, especially if the Bucks crap out and lose six games to East opponents the rest of the way — a possibility considering that the Bobcats, Hawks, Celtics (twice), Cavs, Bulls (in Chicago) and a trip to Philly are on the schedule. The Bucks’ conference record is 27-17. The Bobcats are at 22-23.  The Bucks need 3 wins against East competition to claim the tie-breaker IF they lose Friday in Charlotte.

If this sounds like one too many scenarios springing from the art of losing, it probably is. Let’s just beat the Bobcats Friday and grab the tiebreaker.

NBA Playoffs: Bucks vs. Sixers 2001

The finest weekend of NBA basketball 2008 is upon us!!!  Four conference semifinal games, three pivotal Game 4’s. The only way NBA Commish David Stern could’ve planned it better would have been if the Celtics had taken care of the Hawks a little sooner so that Celtics-Cavs would also be playing, yes, a pivotal Game 4 tonight.

Lebron James and the Cavaliers are in a desperate spot: If he and his young guards don’t find their shooting range tonight in Game 3, they’ll likely fall down 0-3, a deficit no NBA team has ever recovered from to win a series. The Cavs are at home, or, to rephrase that – they’re not playing in the Boston Garden, where the Celtics seem invincible in these playoffs.

Lakers-Jazz, Hornets-Spurs, Pistons-Magic — all set at 2-1 with this weekend’s home teams, the Jazz, Spurs and Magic, needing to win, yes pivotal Game 4’s, to square the series’ at 2-2. Only the Spurs seem capable of climbing back from the alternative – Game 4 loss and a 1-3 deficit.

To help Bucks fans celebrate this, the finest weekend of NBA basketball 2008, here’s a youtube clip (thanks to rilaman) of highlights (and some lowlights) from the Big Three Bucks gut-wrenching seven-game series against Philly in 2001. Viva le Ray Allen!!! – raining rafters-arcing threes on the Sixers, the refs and an awed Commish.






Memory reboot:  Ray’s nine three-pointer detonation came in Game 3, which put the Bucks up 2-1. After Philly evened it with some help from the refs in pivotal Game 4, the Dog’s ten-footer to win Game 5 rimmed off. The Bucks blew Philly out at the BC in Game 6, setting up Game 7 in Philly …

While I’m still waiting for Ray to have one of his rainmaker shooting games in the 2008 playoffs, here’s another youtube vid (thanks again rilaman). The year is 1996, and Ray Allen’s about to hit his first NBA three … 






I can’t let that airball from Iverson go. It was one of the Answer’s first shots as a pro!!! That had to hurt.  

Nor can I, nor should I, let Jonny Mac’s typical boneheaded commentary pass, even though it’s more than 10 years old. Praising then-rookie Stephon Marbury for “creating shots for his teammates” when he’d scarcely seen Marbury play in the NBA just smacks of … typical Jonny Mac. And to find rookie Iverson lacking because he “creates shots for himself.” …  This is the Bucks commentator who’s been kissing “Michael”s butt for five years!

Why was Jonny talking about Marbury at all? Stephon and the 1996 T-Wolves weren’t anywhere near the Bucks-Philly game and there was no break in the action. While Jonny made his base comparison of rookies Marbury and Iverson, Bucks rookie Ray was rippling the nets for his first NBA hoop, shortly followed by his first three pointer. Obviously, the perfect time to talk about the T-wolves new point guard. Do you get the feeling that Jonny didn’t like the draft day trade of Marbury for Ray?  

More importantly, are Bucks fans finally, after 30 years, ready for a new color commentator?  Give the mic to Scott Williams full-time, please!!!

VIVA  LA NBA PLAYOFFS!!! 

Cavs to win it all, unless they don’t

We take a break now from our Bucks playoff coverage, which has found many Bucks fans living and dying vicariously through Ray Allen jumpshots and wondering why the Bucks ever let the Hawks sign Zaza Pachulia (Slickless Larry Harris again, in that fateful 2005 offseason; it’s not as though Zaza was expensive. How could anyone think Dan Gadzuric was the better investment?) The NBA postseason is littered with “what ifs” for Bucks fans.

That’s why I’ve put in a call to my old friend, Al in Ohio, whose Cleveland Cavaliers knocked out the Washington Wizards over the weekend, in front of the Wiz home fans. Al let it ring five times before answering, probably trying to decide whether or not he wants to bring down his Cavs buzz by talking to a fan of the beleagured Bucks.

“You’re not calling about that Michael Redd trade again, are you? Lebron says he’s thinking about changing his cell phone number.”

“Naw, I’m just checking in to remember what it’s like to be an NBA fan with your team in the playoffs.”

(Pause.)

“Al, you still there?”

“Just hold on, J-Mo, I’m about to say something profound.”

“OK …uh …. Al?”

“The Cavs will win the NBA title this year! …”

“That’s the spirit! They’ve got just as much chance as anyone!”

“Unless they lose before then. They’re playing brilliantly, except when they don’t.”

“Al, you guys along Lake Erie still smarting from the elections? What happened to the bravado? You’ve got King James, and he ought to give you some confidence.”

“LeBron is once again showing that he may or may not be the greatest player ever. I also predict that when LeBron is 38, he will not be the player he is at 23. He will, in fact, be older.”

“Man, you should hear how Lakers fans are barking about Kobe. They’re demanding that Steve Nash hand both of his MVP’s back to the league for further review. And, according to Lakers fans, IT’s OVER – the Lakers won the title months ago. Anyone who disagrees is a HATER.  What gives?”

“I’m trying to preserve my status as basketball genius.”

“Al, there’s only one basketball genius in the world, and he’s sooo smart he actually gave Larry Brown his 300th coaching job last week.”

“I’m putting in my application for His Airness’s abandoned mantle.”

“But what about the Celtics? You Cavs fans almost got to see the Hawks in the semis!” (Well, not quite almost.)

“The Cavs still have a good chance, unless they blow it. The Celtics (or the Pistons) just don’t have that ‘one guy’ like Lebron who can will his team to win. Lebron has this Jordan-like ability to just decide he doesn’t want to lose. Look at game six against Washington: 27 points, 13 rebounds, 13 assists. Exhorting his teammates during time outs – in a hostile arena. Cavs win. The guy is one of those once-in-a-decade players. The Celtics aren’t the near-lock for the finals that many people thought.”

“They sure don’t look like it, Al. I’m rooting for Ray and Sam ‘I Am’, don’t get me wrong, but the Celtics looked all-too-beatable against the Hawks, especially when Ray had bad shooting nights. Against the Cavs, Paul Pierce will be busy guarding Lebron, or trying to. And Garnett has all he can handle in the paint with Big Ben, Z-Ilgauskus and Anderson Varejao. It could get ugly.”

” Garnett, Pierce and Allen … for all their talent, have never been as far in the playoffs as LeBron has.”

“Hold on Al – Ray’s in the finals if Big Dog hits that shot in 2001 game five and the refs don’t steal that game and game three from us. The better team lost.”

“Don’t bring me down with that persecuted small market team Bucks fan thinking — it’s 2008 and we’re talking Cavs and Lebron!  If they beat the Celtics, we’ll probably see a repeat of last year, against the Spurs.”

“You don’t sound too encouraged. But then, the Spurs do have that affect on the NBA. How do they keep winning? Doesn’t anyone on that team ever get tired or hurt?”

“No one knows, but if you count them out, they win it all. Count them in, and maybe they lose.”

“That’s playoffs thinking Al!  I remember that stuff. But you forgot about Detroit.”

“The Pistons are up to no good, as usual. They’re trying to steal our underdog status in these playoffs. ”

“Well, your Cavs did beat them last year and the Pistons have not proven that they can take Lebron in a seven-game series, not now anyway.”

“Yeah, but our team is from Cleveland. Doesn’t that count for anything anymore?”

“Not in the rust belt, Al, not in the rust belt. Just look at the team we’ve got in Milwaukee.”

“Don’t want to J-Mo. And I gotta go … before you and your Bucks kill my Cavs buzz.”

“Wait Al!  About that Michael Redd tra–“

(Click)