Tag Archives: Atlanta Hawks

Game 5: Bucks heroes, Hawks goats

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOW FOR SOME HEROES (there are many)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOME GOATS (quite a few of these, too)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) Bigger and stronger;

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

3) A lot more experienced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How tall are these Hawks, really? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horford:  a full 6’9″

Made in Cameroon: Joe Johnson’s new suit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bucks vs. Hawks: This one’s going seven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bucks-Celtics anyone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toronto Raptors: Hello Cleveland. Goodbye Chris Bosh.