Everybody knew it was over before it began. There was simply no hope of advancing especially when pitted against such a seasoned and well rounded group with contender aspirations. They had been here before and gone toe to toe with the elite. This year they even added a new threat to bolster an already potent roster. In the Eastern Conference, where three of the series have already concluded, one continues on, to the surprise of many. This series is like the Land of the Lost in the East as somehow it has fallen into a dimensional portal where legitimate competition still exists. (Imagine, if you will, a giant hawk and deer chasing sports writers through a prehistoric land while constantly battling each other.) Unlike the other series’ where the losing team won a total of two combined games, the series pitting two animalistic forces against one another has yet to be decided. What everybody was so certain of before the series began has only proven to show how little anyone actually knew.
When Andrew Bogut went down towards the end of the regular season the Milwaukee Bucks lost their best defensive player. At the time they were poised to face the Boston Celtics in the first round in what many considered to be a rather favorable draw considering how poorly the Celtics were playing at that time. (Boston clearly drank its prune juice just before the playoffs began as they look like a completely different team after making quick work of the Miami Heat.) Instead the Bucks dropped a seed and were paired with Atlanta to open the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. The writing was on the wall. Atlanta is making their third consecutive playoff appearance and is looking to improve on last season’s playoff run where they lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern semifinals. It was assumed that they would be the aggressor wanting to capitalize on the opportunity to solidify themselves as an elite team in the East. Milwaukee, on the other hand, had not even reached the postseason since 2006 and has not won a playoff series since losing in the Eastern Conference finals in 2001.
After the first two games the Hawks looked to have a commanding stranglehold on the series. In the first two games the Hawks won by ten points each time. Paced by their regular season scoring leaders, Joe Johnson and Sixth Man of the Year, Jamal Crawford, Atlanta seemed to be firing on all cylinders. Johnson scored a total of 49 points in the two wins while Crawford scored 17 in the first game but had a low scoring game two. However, when Crawford went cold the slack was quickly picked up by others. Al Horford and the human highlight reel that is Josh Smith more than made up for Crawford’s off game with superb performances of their own. Smith totaled 21 points, cleaned the glass for 14 rebounds, and dished out nine dimes while Horford had 20 points and ten rebounds. With Bogut out these two were more than eager to dominate all aspects of the painted area on both sides of the floor. Who could stop them? Yet, not all is what it seems in the two games that Atlanta was able to notch in their belt.
During the first encounter between the teams the Hawks were able to build a 20 point lead in the first quarter and were able to sustain that lead which grew to 22 point at halftime. One half, just one half of basketball is how much the Hawks actually played in that game. It was enough in the end but was telling of what the future had in store. All season long the Atlanta Hawks have had trouble closing out games and if it were not for such a big lead they might have very well found themselves on the wrong side of the win/loss column. Game two was a much more even affair with Milwaukee hanging around much to the chagrin of the Hawks. The third quarter was when Atlanta finally was able to pull away outscoring the Bucks 24-16. One good quarter of play, that is all it took but this is a team that was supposed to dismantle Milwaukee with their star player out for the playoffs. Nonetheless the Hawks won the first two games on their home court but in the wins another story was lurking just below the surface.
Brandon Jennings, who will likely come in second or third in the ROY voting today after Tyreke Evans is announced the winner, carried the Bucks in game one. In fact, he essentially was the Bucks in the first game. Atlanta had no answer for him. He scored 34 points and connecting on four of six shots from behind the arc. Over all he was 14-25 shooting for the game. These numbers could have been higher for Jennings, however, as he had five of his shots blocked. It would be wise to note again that the Bucks only lost by ten points. In the second game the Hawks gave Joe Johnson the task of guarding Jennings for much of the game. This had the desired result for Atlanta as it slowed down Jennings but the side effect to slowing the production of Jennings was that it awoke the powers of Sampson that John Salmons stores in his beard.
Since being acquired from the Bulls (who looked as though they still needed his scoring might in their series with the Cavs) Salmons has been a major factor on both sides of the ball for the Bucks contributing heavily to their success. He shouldered Milwaukee’s scoring attack for the second and third games of the series scoring 21 and 22 points respectively. It would take more than the effort than one player to get the Bucks back into the series however, and they would get it once they returned to the Bradley Center. Milwaukee pounced on the Hawks quickly in game three scoring 39 points in the first quarter on route to an eighteen point rout of the Hawks. Their attack was finally balanced, despite Brandon Jennings sitting out after a fall, with Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Luke Ridnour, Ersan Ilyasova, and Jerry Stackhouse all scoring in double figures to go along with Jennings’ 13 points and Salmons’ scoring output. Jerry Stackhouse has had a sort of resurgence during this series as he has been one of Milwaukee’s best bench players. A series was beginning to take shape.
In game four it was more of the same for the Bucks in terms of scoring distribution as it was spread among several players again. Carlos Delfino was key for Milwaukee scoring 22 points with 18 of those points coming from downtown. Jennings returned to form scoring 23 points and Salmons contributed 22 as the Bucks won 111-104. The Bradley Center completely rejuvenated the Bucks and they are playing like the team that made the successful run after the All Star break to solidify a playoff spot. In the absence of Andrew Bogut, Kurt Thomas and Dan Gadzuric have performed stoutly in the middle. So each team has won on their home floor. This is the point of home court advantage and the series was now tied at two games apiece. Atlanta’s early swagger had all but vanished since their early success, not only could not finish games strong, they were not even in a position to win the games late as Milwaukee paraded to the foul line late in game four allowing them to hold off a push by the Hawks.
Last night in Atlanta the Hawks looked to regain their lost confidence as they took the court at Philips Arena where they had won fourteen straight games. The Hawks scored consistently in the first three quarters totaling 23 points in each and went into the fourth quarter with a 69-61 lead. With 4:10 left in the game the Hawks led 82-73 and appeared in control in front of their home crowd. However, the Bucks went on an 18-5 run to close the game and give them a 91-87 win stamping out the high flying Hawks and their aspirations of victory. With the win, Milwaukee now holds a three games to two series lead. Again, the Bucks’ usual suspects paced the team. Jennings scored 25 points and Salmons pitched in 19 in the win.
Atlanta has no answer for Milwaukee’s two main scoring threats and has blown each opportunity they have had to regain some semblance of their former selves. Joe Johnson has been the only constant for the Hawks as his teammates have not played consistently each game. Jamal Crawford, Al Horford, and Josh Smith have all been crucial at times but their efforts are not coming when the Hawks need it most. Unless they can solve the problem that Jennings and Salmons have created defensively Atlanta can only hope to survive their next game in the Bradley Center. Major adjustments must be made for force a game seven. The once lauded Hawks are in trouble, can they stop the Bucks’ stampede? Atlanta’s missteps have, however, given the otherwise uneventful Eastern Conference first round a series worth watching. No one doubted that this was their series to win.
What everyone knew turned out be nothing at all. Without Bogut each player for Milwaukee has elevated their play to get the Bucks into the position they are in. Instead of succumbing to Atlanta’s buckshot, they have clipped the wings of the Hawks. Playing in front of their hometown fans, with chants of “fear the deer” reigning down, will give the Bucks extra motivation to win game six and advance to meet the rested Magic in the semifinals. Atlanta’s singular task is to force a game seven but if their two previous games in the Bradley Center are any indication of their performance the outlook is dim. It would not be ludicrous to assume that the Hawks could be the outcast when the Orlando Magic resume play for the second round.