Georgia EMC power this evening finally turned the lights back on in the Atlanta area, where the Bucks would do well to think about the snow that’s seized the city instead of the Chicago Bulls.
The Bulls stomped Detroit tonight, 95-82, pushing their record to 25-12 and dumping the Bucks (14-21) to 10 games behind the lead in the Central Division with 47 left to play. Ten games out, and Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah hardly know each other on the basketball court.
The Bulls surprisingly strong start despite injuries to their stars, the gaudy 17-3 Chicago home record and gritty wins like Saturday’s defeat of the KG-less Celtics are a cold damper on whatever solace the Bucks may take from having played by far the toughest schedule in the NBA, based on opponent record. Barring a season-ending injury to Derrick Rose, the Bucks might as well forget that many preseason prognosticators favored them to win the Central.
But the Bucks are far away from Chicago, where four inches of snow wouldn’t shut down the city or threaten to stop a basketball game. They’re in Atlanta, where the Hawks and their 25-14 record look as daunting as the Bulls but, unlike the snow on the ground, looks can be deceiving.
Yes, the Hawks are right behind the Bulls, 8.5 games ahead of the Bucks in the standings — but those 14 losses have come against the softest schedule in the Eastern Conference. This becomes then pivotal game for the Bucks (if it’s played). Beat the Hawks and the Bucks are six games back of Atlanta on the loss side, knowing that they’ve put the toughest schedule in the NBA behind them and that the Hawks have the toughest schedule in the East ahead.
Lose in Atlanta and the Bucks fall to eight games back of the Hawks on the loss side, two steps closer to forgetting about where they are in the standings relative to the Hawks and two steps closer to it not mattering when the snow melts.
The Hawks were blown off the court by the Bucks the last time the teams met in Atlanta (Nov. 10) which raised some questions about whether the Hawks realized that they were playing the Bucks, the team that, without its All-Pro center, nearly pushed them over in the 2010 playoffs.
The Bucks were led in that early season game by Ersan Ilyasova (17 pts) and Corey Maggette (20 pts), who took advantage of Atlanta’s weak second unit and helped turn a 22-9 Bucks deficit into a 54-40 Bucks lead at half. That’s a 45-18 run over 16 minutes, during which Atlanta’s infamously shaky psyche crumbled.
The Hawks are coach Larry Drew’s now, but in that game seemed the same old Hawks they were under Mike Woodson, fighting the demons of selfishness and hair-brained focus that made them playoff pushovers in 2009 and 2010.
The rematch Dec. 27 in Milwaukee was, in comparison, a study in contrasts. Instead of being stifled by the Bucks defense and general aggression, the Hawks bench caught fire, hitting a barrage of jump shots (Jamal Crawford, Marvin Williams, Maurice Evans and Jeff Teague shot a combined 15 of 23 — 15 of 23! — for 40 pts) that left the Bucks visibly disoriented (“only the Portland Trailblazers are allowed to do that to us!”)
The Bucks of course were doing their best to lead the league in bad shooting and went in at half down 57-42. In the 3rd quarter, the never-say-die Bucks clawed the lead down to six, but the Hawks were feeling too good about themselves to let the Bucks get any closer.
The Hawks are tough to beat when they’re feeling good about themselves. The trick, as Dwight Howard and the Magic have figured out, is to never let the Hawks feel very good about anything.
That 95-80 loss to the Hawks two weeks ago was yet another game in which, without injured point guard Brandon Jennings, Andrew Bogut struggled to generate efficient offense in the post. While Bogut was grappling with Hawks center Jason Collins, Hawks power forward Al Horford (no, he’s not a center) shot 9 of 15 and led the Hawks with 18 points. Bogut was 7 of 19 and finished with 14.
Bogut’s low scoring output has been a problem for the Bucks since the first half of the Lakers game Dec. 21 when Bogut overpowered the Lakers and Pau Gasol for easy bucket after easy bucket. Since then, they’ve played about 8 straight games in a hole that about 70% offensive efficiency from Bogut naturally puts them in. In the overtime loss to the Heat Friday, Bogut shot 4 of 17 from the field.
Bogut also grabbed a career high 27 rebounds against Miami and anchored a hellacious second half defensive front that would have crushed any team but the Heat, but the point here is that Bucks center can make things a lot easier for his team by simply making half of his shots. He hasn’t done this for six straight games (Bogut missed the Bucks game in New Jersey Saturday with a virus of undisclosed variety).
What does all this set up for game three of this growing Eastern Conference rivalry? Given the polar opposites of the first two games, it’s anybody’s guess. Ilyasova is a starter now. Marvin Williams almost never shoots six for nine. Chris Douglas-Roberts, who missed the first Bucks-Hawks game and was a non-factor in the second, happens to be the hottest player on either team, scoring 30 against the Heat and 24 on Saturday against his former team, the Nets, on his birthday.
Right now the Bucks are feeling pretty good about themselves (despite the 14-21 record) after battling into OT with the Heat Friday and blowing out the Nets in New Jersey Saturday. After playing Miami, Orlando and Miami again in four days last week, the Bucks have to feel pretty good every game that isn’t played against guys wearing Heat or Magic uniforms.
If the Hawks are a paper tiger with a good record built against a weak schedule, there’s no better time than tonight for the Bucks to prove it.