Tag Archives: Zaza Pachulia

Baiting Draymond Green: Overlooked in wake of Kawhi Leonard injury, Game 1 technical was foul

Referee Marc Davis got the call right on the biggest play of the 2017 playoffs so far: the “slide under” close-out foul by Warriors center Zaza Pachulia that re-injured Kawhi Leonard‘s bum left ankle, which Leonard had tweaked just 1:50 earlier. At least one of Davis’ bosses was watching — Senior VP of replay and referee operations Joe Borgia, who noted on his “Making the Call” NBA-TV segment Sunday that “the referee, luckily, stayed on the play all the way until the shooter landed and the foul was called on the play.”

The play will surely stand in history, the video shared endlessly around the internet, as the point where the underdog Spurs lost any chance of winning this Western Conference Finals series against the Warriors. Pachulia’s “dangerous” foul will be remembered, and replays will show what Borgia and other NBA officiating execs strive for — an NBA referee unassumingly doing his job, signalling the call, getting it right. The guys in the light grey shirts look good on the most-watched video of the 2017 playoffs.

Very few will remember the call Davis made just 33 seconds before Leonard was injured.

Referee Marc Davis calls a technical foul on Draymond Green in the 3rd quarter of Game 1 of the Spurs-Warriors Western Conference Finals, 5/14/17. Photo by Thearon W. Henderson. Licence: Standard non-commercial use.

It was an innocuous enough play, and the Warriors’ Draymond Green is probably still wondering what he did to deserve the technical foul Davis called on him. Spurs guard Danny Green had fumbled the ball near the Spurs bench and Draymond was on him, digging at it, making sure he couldn’t recover. The ball went out of bounds off Danny Green, Warriors ball.

The D. Green in question clapped his hands once, let out a yell and looked downcourt toward the Warriors bench, hoping to energize his team. The turnover was the first empty possession for the Spurs in the 2nd half. The Warriors were down 20 and needed an emotional lift, on defense, especially, and Green, the emotional leader of the team, was trying to provide just that when Davis T-ed him up before he could inbound the ball.

“Maybe on the bend-over …” ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy tried to offer an explanation but paused. “Taunting?” it was suggested. …”I don’t know,” Van Gundy decided. Nobody else seemed to know either, and the boo-birds at the Oracle arena in Oakland circled for a moment and then flocked to Davis. They always find him, it seems, in Milwaukee, Houston, Oakland; the city doesn’t matter, they’re there. Sometimes he seems to invite them in.

Davis and those technical fouls

The technical issued to Green was the 8th individual technical foul Davis has called in his last five games. No other individual techs were called in those games. There was the team defensive three seconds Tony Brothers penalized the Raptors for in Milwaukee, but in those five playoff games, Davis was the only referee calling any Ts on players.

The NBA average over the last two seasons is about three technicals called per four games, according to figures published by The Sporting News in an article on NBA referee policies. The eight called by Davis in his last five games is more than double (2.13 times) the NBA average.

If the league sees this as a problem (and nobody’s saying it does), NBA officiating operations hasn’t responded in kind. Quite the opposite, in fact: Davis has been promoted twice since the 5-game technical streak began, first to advance to the semifinals officiating pool, and last weekend to the conference finals pool of 20 officials.

So here Davis was, in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, interrupting an awesome display of hot shooting by both teams to open the 2nd half — 29 combined points in the first eight possessions of the half — to issue a technical foul on Draymond Green for, apparently, being Draymond Green.

Baiting Draymond Green?

Much about Game 1 has been overlooked in light of Leonard’s injury, which occurred on the Spurs next possession following the technical on Green. But Davis’ technical on Green was a huge call at a time when, 1) not only were the Spurs and Warriors putting on an incredible show of net-scorching shooting, but 2) the Warriors were trying to build some momentum to get back in the game. The call interrupted the flow of the game to draw the attention of everyone watching from the brilliant play on the court to the officiating, to Davis and Green. It’s still not clear why, or what Green did, but Davis’ call may yet be subject an ordinance violation in Alameda County.

The importance of Green being the transgressor should not be lost on anybody. Green has, to say the least, a fiery temperament, and his flagrant foul suspension in last season’s NBA Finals cost the Warriors dearly in their quest to repeat as champions. He plays the game with emotions fully charged. The Warriors feed off Green’s energy, and he is unquestionably the leader of the Warriors defense (the No. 2 rated D in the league behind the Spurs’).

The toxic byproducts of Green’s full tilt approach to the game are technical fouls — he had 16 during the season, the most of his career, and six flagrant fouls, according to ESPN stats. But while Green exceeded the flagrant foul points limit in last season’s playoffs, he has not accumulated any this post-season. The technical issued by Davis was the 2nd on Green in the 2017 playoffs (the first was in Utah, May 6), well under the limit of seven allowed before an automatic one-game suspension kicks in.

The only risk for Green being called for a tech in Game 1 was the good chance that his next emotional outburst would be a second violation, and he’d be ejected from the game. Down 20 in the 3rd quarter to a team that won 61 games during the regular season, the Warriors could ill afford to lose him. They needed Green’s emotional energy to drive a comeback, and here Davis had given Green a technical for doing just that, providing a burst of energy on defense and showing emotion for the benefit of his team and the home crowd.

Davis had hit Draymond Green with a technical foul for being Draymond Green and, given his officiating track record in these playoffs, because he was Marc Davis.

It was bad refereeing, or worse — it could be construed as an official “baiting” a player, in this case an emotionally charged player indispensable to his team. Davis would call four personal fouls on Green in Game 1, plus the technical, shades of the game-long drama between Davis and Rockets star James Harden in Houston May 5. Green, to his credit, didn’t respond by escalating the situation (in contrast to how Harden handled, or was handled by, Davis’ officiating in Houston) and ended up playing nearly 37 minutes and making key defensive plays for the Warriors in crunch time.

Though the technical — and Davis’ focus on Green — did not turn out to be a major factor in the outcome of the game, this was the kind of officiating nonsense that gives the NBA a bad reputation, turns fans off and gives rise to all sorts of crazy theories about the league’s underlying motivations — just the sort of thing commissioner Adam Silver is trying to get away from in the new era of post-David Stern transparency.

Yet in all likelihood, Davis will be promoted again to work the NBA Finals, just as he was last season and the season before that; and this season from the first round to the semifinals and now the conference finals. Yes, there are new initiatives on the way, and NBA Official claims to track every call and hold officials to “the most rigorous standards in all of sports” (see ref. notes). Yet there appear to be no consequences for bad officiating beyond the public embarrassment of having missed calls labelled “incorrect” in one of the league’s “Last Two Minute Reports”.

For what it’s worth, one of the refereeing initiatives underway is a “newly created postgame survey process for coaches to share officiating feedback.” Steve Kerr and the Warriors should use it. They have major cause to file a complaint regarding the technical foul, and the general “over-policing” of Green during Game 1.

Too many whistles: Game 1 officiating sketch

Spurs-Warriors Game 1 was in many ways, a difficult game to watch. The Warriors weren’t themselves coming out of a six day layoff following their sweep of the Jazz. Klay Thompson had a lousy shooting day (2 for 11). They turned the ball over six times in the opening quarter. The Spurs nearly matched them with five turnovers of their own. (Official scorer’s report).

The referees contributed to the off-key nature of the game by calling 48 personal fouls, about eight more than the both the NBA season and playoff averages. Pau Gasol was victimized the most (a rare day) and has been outplayed by Pachulia in the series (another rare thing — Zaza has enjoyed a nice second life in the NBA since leaving Atlanta a few years ago). When did Zaza Pachulia become a better player than Pau Gasol?

The officials for the game were led by crew chief Dan Crawford, the senior official in the league (in his 32nd season and 29th playoff) who last worked with Davis May 5 in Houston. Davis was 2nd official. Third official Tom Washington has not worked a game since officiating with Davis May 2 in Boston for Game 2 of Wizards-Celtic, in which 50 personal fouls were called. The makeup of this crew seems like it may have been a “chemistry and composition” effort by the NBA to pair Davis (the bane of home teams) and Washington (a 65% homer this season) with Crawford, who likes to control a game — and that’s just what Crawford did in Oakland.

Source: Official Scorers Report, Spurs vs. Warriors, 5/14/17.

As you can see, the calls were even for the game, with an advantage to the Warriors through the 3rd quarter, then shifting to the Spurs in the 4th quarter, when neither Washington nor Davis called a foul on the Spurs. This coincided with the flow of the game, too obvious to be good officiating. This was a prickly officiating crew, with bad calls, touch fouls and the nonsense technical on the Warriors’ Green giving the refs a larger-than-necessary presence throughout.

  • Crawford called 21 fouls for the game, well more than the average (about 13 or 14) and tops in the four 2017 playoff games I’ve surveyed.
  • Crawford takes the lead in the 1st quarter, setting the tone with five fouls while the other two whistles are quiet.
  • 17 personal fouls called in the 2nd quarter was quite the barrage — 9 on the Warriors and 8 on the Spurs while the Warriors were trying to stay in the game. Made for some difficult basketball, and difficult viewing.
  • Gasol’s first two fouls came in the 1st quarter and he went to the bench. This quickly turned into lucky misfortune for the Spurs due to the brilliant first half David Lee played.
  • 3rd foul on Gasol a questionable call by Crawford at 5:18 in the 2nd quarter. “That’s a tough call,” said ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy. Gasol was discombobulated the rest of the game, played only 16 minutes. His line: 5 points, 2 rebs, 5 fouls. Enter David Lee.
  • Davis finished the game with an 11-4 disparity in favor of the Spurs, made less remarkable by Washington’s 9-4 disparity the other way, which was actually better than the 12-5 disparity in favor of the Celtics the last game Washington worked.
  • Davis, despite his handling of Green, which seems to be something of a dramatic trend with Davis, was not the worst official in the game. Crawfords 21 fouls called were too many, too often, and too “touch-foul”.

Too many whistles marred this game. The Spurs on average in the playoffs had been called for just 18.2 personal fouls per game prior to Game 1; the Warriors average was 19.6. The combined 37.8 avg. makes the 48 personal fouls called just a bit more outrageous. This was not the Wizards vs. the Celtics, two teams in need of parental supervision in their series.

The Spurs (103.5 D-rating) and the Warriors (104.0 D-rating) are the elite defensive teams in the NBA, with the Warriors NBA-leading offense in need of no introduction and the Spurs in the top 10 in scoring efficiency. Coming into the series, it certainly looked like a classic match-up filled with future Hall of Famers and current All-Pros, and an MVP candidate (Leonard).

There was no need to muck up the basketball with so many whistles. One could say the refs didn’t have a good handle on the action or the teams, and were somewhat disrespectful to the game itself by, at times, becoming bigger than the game. The fault here probably lies with Crawford, the crew chief and senior official in the NBA, in his 32nd season and 29th playoff.

Game 2 of the series, refereed by Ed Malloy, Ken Mauer and Kane Fitzgerald saw only 36 personal fouls called and no technical fouls on either team. Imagine that.

Source-erole

Source for season stats, playoff stats, player links and advanced stats is basketball-reference.com. Source for all game stats are the Official Scorer’s Reports found NBA.com at the bottom of Associated Press “recaps”. The NBA has responded to this series with only stock “fan relations” PR quoted above, and to point to the March 2 announcement of new officiating initiatives at http://pr.nba.com/nba-officiating-initiatives/

  • ABC Broadcast, Game 1, w/ Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson
  • NBA-TV, “Making the Call w/ Joe Borgia”, 5/14/17: http://official.nba.com/making-the-call-may-14-2017/
  • Full quote from Borgia: Joe Borgia, Senior VP of NBA Replay and Referee Operations. “We see this quite often in the NBA where that defender they just go a little bit too far, and you’re not allowed to take the landing area away from a shooter. Obviously a very dangerous situation for players, and the referee, luckily, stayed on that play all the way until the shooter landed and the foul was called on the play.”
  • The Sporting News, NBA technical foul trends, 12/8/2016: http://www.sportingnews.com/nba/news/referees-policy-technical-fouls-ejections-nbra-adam-silver-bob-delaney/5bxteydvb19i1bxnomhbnd0l6
  • Technical foul points system, 2016 report: http://www.nba.com/2016/news/features/steve_aschburner/06/12/draymond-green-suspension-could-spark-changes-in-point-system/
  • NBA.com, “Draymond Green Walking the Fine Line”, 4/13/17: http://www.nba.com/article/2017/04/13/draymond-green-walking-line-fine-line-redemption-golden-state-warriors
  • San Francisco Chronicle, 5/6/17, “Green gets 1st technical”: http://www.sfgate.com/warriors/article/Warriors-Green-gets-1st-technical-foul-of-11127427.php
  • Draymond Green career stats, ESPN: http://www.espn.com/nba/player/stats/_/id/6589/draymond-green
  • Associated Press “Business Insider”, 2016 finals pre-game wire: http://www.businessinsider.com/ap-the-latest-green-aware-of-technicals-mum-on-the-topic-2016-6

The Bruce Bowen File, 10 years later: The incredible hypocrisy of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was “not a happy camper” Monday morning, having lost Kawhi Leonard, a 23-point 3rd quarter lead and Game 1 to the Golden State Warriors and center Zaza Puchulia, whose close-out defense on a Leonard 3-pointer caused Leonard to re-injure his bad ankle. So on Monday Popovich attacked Pachulia in the media, calling the play “unsportsmanlike”, “dangerous”, “unnatural” and leveled charges that Zaza has a history of dirty play.

“Follow-up questions?” Popovich asked, after his rant.  Apparently, none of the assembled with ipods and other recording devices thought to mention Popovich’s old defensive “specialist”, Bruce Bowen, the subject of controversy a decade ago about exactly the same type of illegal “step under” or “slide under” defense Pachulia used against Leonard.

Popovich had this to say back in 2006 when the NBA warned Bowen about Bowen’s crowding close-outs and the sprained jump shooter ankles that he sometimes caused.

“The people who cry about it are just frustrated about having to go against Bruce,” Popovich said in 2006, and complained that league officials were “trying to change the way my best defender plays.”

There was a reason for that. Bowen was as dirty as they come, and made it all too obvious that the shifting or “sliding” of his lead foot into a shooter’s landing space was an intentional defensive move meant to wreak an ankle or few, as you’ll see in this video.

Popovich went even further defending Bowen, and took a defiant stance toward the league directive on Bowen (from VP of NBA basketball operations Stu Jackson) and the efforts to clean up the game.

“The league is just trying to cover its ass,” Popovich said. “I told Bruce, ‘You be Bruce Bowen. You’re the best (expletive) defender in this league. You will NOT change the way you play defense.'” Bowen, when asked, said he was going to ignore what Stu Jackson and the league had told him, and do what his coach told him: “I’ve been given a command, so I’m going to keep playing hard.”

“Pop” and Bowen basically told the league to (expletive) off, a shame considering the bigger picture. The era in which Popovich and his Duncan-Parker-Ginobili trio won their first three NBA championships (2003-07) was an ugly era for the NBA — no Michael Jordan (for the most part); bigger, stronger players lacking in fundamental skills; the “Malice in the Palace” in Detroit; a feuding Shaq and Kobe; a referee betting scandal; slow, “dead-ball” pacing; one-on-one isolation offenses and low offensive ratings; and even lower TV ratings — the lowest since the league was young, if not the lowest in NBA history. The defense that Bowen played was part of the ugliness, and Popovich’s defense of it was just one of the league’s many problems.

It would culminate in the months following the Spurs’ rebuke of the league, in the Western Conference Semifinals against the Phoenix Suns and reigning two-time MVP Steve Nash. Bowen kneed Nash in the groin early in the series and was not suspended. Suns players accused both Bowen and Manu Ginobili of being dirty players. And — ten years ago the day of Leonard’s injury in Game 1 — Spurs’ forward Robert Horry hockey-checked Nash hard into the scorers table in the final seconds of Game 4, igniting a good scuffle on the court.

Defying all common sense and with the series tied 2-2, the NBA suspended Horry for two games, and two Suns for Game 5 — All-Pro big man Amar’e Stoudemire and forward Boris Diaw. Stoudemire and Diaw were not in the fray but had “left the immediate bench area” during the pushing and shoving on the court.

Popovich was less than contrite in 2007 about the dirty play of his team. “It was an end of the game foul,” he shrugged, pausing for effect. “And Steve fell down. I didn’t think it was such a big deal.”

Ten Years Ago to the Day

The historical symmetry here is too good, and if you made this stuff up, nobody would believe it. Ten years ago on this day, May 16, ESPN and other media were spinning about the wrongheaded suspensions of the Suns players and wondering that commissioner David Stern’s league had failed yet again, and now seemed incapable of levying even a simple suspension. The Spurs went on to win the Suns series and championship No. 4 in the Popovich era, sweeping a 22-year-old Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavs in the finals, a series watched by few. The 2007 NBA Finals was a an unqualified ratings dud, the first time since nearly every household in America had a television that fewer than 10 million people watched the finals. Dark times toward the end of a Dark Age for the NBA.

The league has come a long way since then, led first by the renewal of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry and then Lebron James, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant; and now by James, Steph Curry and other players — Kawhi Leonard — along with a change of style and a new commissioner, Adam Silver. The pace has picked up, the ball moves more quickly on offense, sometimes with astounding precision, and the game has opened up. It’s not all for the better, but much of the strong-arm play of the 1990s and 2000s is a thing of the past — though Popovich and Pachulia and the Celtics-Wizards series have taken us back there for a visit. Zaza may not be able to help it — it’s when and where he’s from as a pro basketball player.

Zaza Pachulia is a down and dirty tough guy in the NBA, a squarish, slow-footed big man who passes well, doesn’t shoot much and makes up for his lack of athleticism by using his strength and low center of gravity to advantage; by making the right cuts without the ball; and by playing hard-nosed basketball, including the occasional nastiness. “You don’t mess with Zaza,” is a rule of thumb his fans and teammates in Atlanta, Milwaukee, Dallas and Golden State have enjoyed and opponents hated.

Pachulia was drafted as a 19-year-old in 2003, and is very much a product of that ugly era of NBA basketball, including the inherent dirty defense. He would have fit in well on the Spurs of the mid-2000s.

If one comes away with any conclusions watching video of Bruce Bowen stepping under jump shooters, note that there is a technique to it, in Bowen’s case more of a step than a “slide” of the right foot forward as the shooter descends from his shot. ESPN TV and radio analyst Jalen Rose, who played in the NBA 1995-2007, fully admitted on “SportCenter” after the Spurs-Warriors Game 1 broadcast that he had used the step-under on Kobe Bryant in the 2000 Finals, when Rose was starting for the Pacers and tasked with guarding the Lakers star. “If [Kobe] sprains his ankle, we win the championship,” Rose said.

There’s no question it’s a dirty play, despised by shooters and employed by the worst hacks on any team at any level of basketball (sorry, Jalen), guys like Bowen who don’t possess great skill but work hard and do the dirty work coaches like Popovich love and encourage.

Zaza Pachulia steps to Kevin Garnett in the 2008 playoffs. License: Standard noncommercial use.

Pachulia was a young, developing player of limited offensive abilities in the mid-2000s, and would certainly have put the Bowen “step under” technique in his defensive toolbox, knowing that dirty work and the occasional dirty play could lead to more playing time in a league where playing time is hard to come by. Zaza had been on three different teams by the time he was 21 and found a home in Atlanta, where he played for eight seasons.

Judging by the play that caused Leonard’s injury, Zaza’s technique is as good or better than than Bowen’s was, as Zaza did a very convincing job of selling his footwork as accidental, a little clumsy even. Try that on any playground or gym in America and you better be ready for a fight, or, in the very least, to defend yourself aggressively.

So do we take Popovich and Pachulia seriously?  Of course not.  Popovich is a win by any means necessary coach, a quality revered by fawning sports media types. By attacking Zaza in the press, Popovich is trying to gain an edge, any edge he can against the Warriors, the better team over the last three years and big favorites to win the series before Leonard went down (Leonard will miss Game 2 of the Series and is questionable for Game 3). He’s doing his job in the aftermath of Leonard’s injury, whether or not his hypocrisy flies in the face of the great basketball the Warriors usually play. Call it a “Popocrisy”.

As for Pachulia, It’s not the first time anybody accused him of being dirty; it comes with the dirty work role he’s occupied in his career. Ask Nikola Mirotic of the Bulls, who got into it with Zaza in the 2015 playoffs. Mirotic was largely absent from that 1st Round series against the Bucks following this incident:

For fans and players alike, for the NBA itself, we’ve all come full circle in ten years, back to a season (2006-07) when the “slide under” was hotly debated and Popovich’s dirty work defender was being fairly singled out. Popovich isn’t apologizing for the three championships he won with Bowen as his starting small forward, nor has he loaned his 2007 ring to Nash for walk-around purposes.

The league was and is a willing accomplice. The NBA might have outlawed the “slide under” ten years ago by invoking harsher penalties, but that didn’t happen. It’s considered a shooting foul, no more no less. As Sports Illustrated pointed out above a May 15 column by Ben Golliver, “blame the NBA, not the Warriors” for Leonard’s injury.

The Warriors may not be to blame, but Puchulia certainly is. Blame him. Better still, blame Popovich, too, and know that there are some Phoenix Suns fans out there getting a pretty big kick out of all this. #popocrisy

Source list:

  • Washington Post, 5/15/15, “Greg Popovich lights into Zaza”: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/sports/wp/2017/05/15/gregg-popovich-lights-into-zaza-pachulia-for-play-that-injured-kawhi-leonard/?utm_term=.118e51bdf697
  • MySA.com, “Spurs Popovich says league crossed line with Bowen” 11/18/2006: https://web.archive.org/web/20080612112118/http://www.mysanantonio.com/sports/basketball/nba/spurs/stories/MYSA111806.05C.BKNspurs.notebook.38e2352.html
  • TV By the Numbers, “NBA Finals ratings”: http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/sports/nba-finals-tv-ratings-1974-2008/
  • NBA Finals TV Ratings wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NBA_Finals_television_ratings
  • NBA on Television, wikipedia:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Basketball_Association_on_television
  • The New York Times, “Suspensions Have Suns Crying Foul”, 5/16/07: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/16/sports/basketball/16suns.html
  • Sports Illustrated column 5/15/2017: https://www.si.com/nba/2017/05/15/nba-playoffs-warriors-spurs-kawhi-leonard-zaza-pachulia-slide-under
  • NBA Official, “Making the Call”, 5/14/2017: http://official.nba.com/
  • NBA.com News, “Leonard to sit out Game 2”, other updates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) Bigger and stronger;

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

3) A lot more experienced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bucks-Hawks Game 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!!!

Game 3 victory: Pleased to meet the Bucks

With their 107-89 victory over the Hawks Saturday, the Bucks were pleased to meet themselves — the tenacious, intense Bucks, ready to play and challenge everything defensively … it was the key to the game.

During their 89-107 loss to the Bucks, the Hawks were also reacquainted with a tried-but-true version of themselves:  the unfocused, road troubled, unmotivated Hawks.

Sorry, but Hawks coach Mike Woodson looked like he was going to cry yesterday.  I suppose he couldn’t believe that his Hawks were doing this to him AGAIN, two years after Boston, as though 175 games (including playoffs) hadn’t been played since, as though the Hawks had gained nothing in learned experience.  The Bucks dominated them Saturday.

While Bucks and Hawks alike are busy getting reacquainted with former and true selves, check out Gadz and Zaza.

(Alright kids, just try not making sound effects for that photo. Just try. Can’t do it can you?).

In the Land of the Giants. Dan Gadzuric and Zaza Pachulia were teammates in Milwaukee 2004-05. They were both free agents summer of 2005. The Bucks decided they could only afford one and overpaid Gadz (6 yrs-$36 mil) while Zaza signed a much more reasonable contract (4 yrs -$16 mil) with the Hawks.  Last summer he signed on for 4 more years at $19 mil.

I’ll never understand why the Bucks didn’t hold cost down on Gadz and sign Zaza too, embarking on a three-headed big man project (the Bucks had just drafted Bogut). It would have made more sense than what they did — trade Desmond Mason and a draft pick for Jamaal “Big Cat” Magloire.

In five years of often entertaining failure, never was Gadz so good, really good as he was Saturday. Ten rebounds in 17 minutes. Four offensive boards, six on the D-end.  One assists. One turnover.  Five ugly fouls – that’s our Gadz.

Gadz played big minutes all night (Primoz Brezec played the garbage time), none bigger than in the 2nd quarter when Kurt Thomas’ cut jaw was being stitched.   10 boards in 17 mins when it counted.  That’s e-ffect-a-Gadz.

Dan Gadzuric has a total of 16 rebs for the series, all in his last 35 mins (he had none in six mins in Game 1). He’s playing his best and most important basketball as a Buck – getting more minutes and being more productive than he was four years ago against Detroit.

Hawks starting center Al Horford could get to only 3 rebounds in 30 mins Saturday, as Gadz, Thomas, Luc Mbah a Moute and Ersan Ilyasova controlled the paint for the first time this series.  With the Bucks making shots, the Hawks had no chance.

… Does Game 3 really need a  breakdown?  The Bucks made shots, John Salmons showed up. The Bucks showed up and played D.  They also controlled the paint.  The Hawks never stood a chance away from “the Highlight dome” or whatever they call the arena in Atlanta.

Game 4 will be Monday already, (quite a change from and I’ll end by saying that a blowout win over the Hawks is no fluke.  More on that in the Game 4 previews.

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?