You didn't really expect the Bucks to win this one. Not on the road against a class home team, on the second night of a back-to-back.
But you didn't really expect the Bucks to lose it either. Not after six straight road wins and six overall, and with all the parts, new and old, meshing so well.
So it was fitting that after four quarters the Bucks had neither won nor lost.
Unfortunately, overtime remained a cruel place for Milwaukee. Despite scoring the first five points, they ultimately dropped to 2-5 in overtime games after Joe Johnson dropped nine points in the final three minutes.
It felt like a playoff game, which always feels good during the regular season, even better when there is real hope of having that feeling after the regular season.
And that is certainly the case for these Bucks, who remain in seventh place in the East despite not passing another real road test. While they didn't pass the test, they certainly didn't fail it in Atlanta, where they played about as close of a game as they have all year, in a season full of close games.
J's reigned supreme as Jerry Stackhouse was chapter one and John Salmons was the story of the game, but Joe Johnson was the conclusion. Meanwhile, Brandon Jennings played a diminishing role and Josh Smith was the most complex supporting character.
The Hawks flew to a 12-2 start and the Bucks looked like the team that started 6-19 on the road. Then, spurred on by Jerry Stackhouse, the Bucks looked a lot more like the team that had gone 6-0 away since. Stackhouse poured in 10 first-quarter points as Scott Skiles quickly had subbed in second-stringers Stackhouse, Ridnour, and Ilyasova with great results.
The teams went back and forth the rest of the way, much like you might expect the Bucks to play a team like the Hawks at home but not on the road. Every quarter was close -- the Hawks won the third quarter by three points and that was the biggest difference in a quarter. That gave Atlanta a one-point lead going into the fourth, but just like the first quarter, Stackhouse and Salmons stepped up for Milwaukee. The Bucks had a chance to win it at the end of regulation, but Al Horford defended Andrew Bogut into a rather disagreeable hook attempt that didn't come close.
Overtime was nearly the opposite of the first quarter. Milwaukee jumped on Atlanta by scoring the first five points to go up 97-92 after two minutes of overtime. But Joe Johnson, who made just 7-22 from the field in regulation, appreciated the extra five minutes and scored nine straight points for Atlanta over regulation-hero John Salmons.
Nearly the opposite and nearly the same, because whereas the Bucks came back to tie it at the end of one, Salmons missed a three with the Bucks down by three and just a second left in overtime.
John Salmons. After six good games and six good wins for John and the Bucks, this was a great game and almost-great almost-win for Salmons and the Bucks.
Salmons shot for a season-high 32 points, making shots from the field (11-20), from deep (2-4), and at the line (8-9).
Though a good shooter, his first instinct since arriving in Milwaukee has been to take the ball to the basket. And when he does so, Salmons often finishes at the hoop or gets a chance to show good of a shooter he is at the free throw line. And once again Salmons indeed was money at the line, making 8-9, as he continues to make far more free throws than he did with Chicago.
Salmons' finest night for Milwaukee took a downturn in overtime. He turned the ball over, bricked a shot, missed a layup, and watched and tried to defend Joe Johnson, who ultimately took over the game with nine straight points. Still, he made that three pointer in overtime to draw the Bucks within a point with nine seconds remaining.
Overall, a great night.
Andrew Bogut. The Bucks struggled early, and Bogut in particular looked off. Al Horford moved Bogut too far away form the basket for him to effectively operate offensively. You know that, 10 feet and in range but not at the rim, where Bogut doesn't convert at a high rate. He missed a couple of those awkward hooks to start, but was able to get better positioning thereafter.
Twenty-four straight games with a block, tying Ervin Johnson for the franchise record. And like so often recently, Bogut is not barely extending the streak. Four blocks tonight, the seventh game in February he blocked at least three.
Jerry Stackhouse. Coming off a personal season-high 16-point day in the win over the Heat, Stackhouse dropped 10 points in the first quarter alone, effectively bringing the Bucks back in what looked like a lost game early.
This makes four straight games in double figures for Jerry, for whom the Bucks were repeatedly running fourth quarter plays. And it's not as though the team didn't have other options. Overall, 20 points on 7-14 from the field and 6-6 at the line along with four rebounds.
When the Bucks added Stack, it seemed they got a good locker room guy and some depth, but not a real difference-maker. He sank jumpers, drove to the hoop, and dunked -- and despite fumbling a ball out of bounds early and throwing the ball back to the other team late, somewhat familiar sights since his arrival -- he generally looked closer to age 26 than 36. You know, when he was a real difference-maker.
14. The game was tied 14 times, but the Bucks needed at least one more tie to push the game into another overtime.
+22. Differentials are often misleading on scales as small as a single game, but Ersan Ilyasova's +22 in 31 minutes really stands out. Considering the team lost, and the best Hawk was Jamal Crawford at +6, and Ilyasova only shot 3-9, this is a confounding stat.
42. The Bucks got 42 points off the bench -- not altogether surprising since balance has been a theme all year and particularly during the recent winning streak. But the fact that all of these points came from just three players (Stackhouse 20, Ridnour 13, Ilyasova 9) is a bit different.
New Bucks. Midseason acquisitions John Salmons and Jerry Stackhouse combined for 52 points, more than half of Milwaukee's total output. That is not to say that the Bucks would have lost 106-50 without them, but they certainly wouldn't have been nearly as close as they were.
Milwaukee fell to 14-6 with Stackhouse and 6-1 with Salmons, so despite the loss these are looking a lot like winning moves by John Hammond.
On the road. The Bucks lost on the road for the first time since falling in Orlando, perhaps not coincidentally the last team they played on the road that currently has a winning record. But whereas Milwaukee lost that game handily, they looked like a very worthy foe against Atlanta tonight.
And thanks to all of those road wins in between, against some of the lesser NBA teams, the Bucks have positioned themselves to make a run at the fifth or sixth playoff seed, which would allow them to play Boston or Atlanta -- much more attractive options than Cleveland or Orlando.
Even with tonight's loss, they are just a game behind Chicago for sixth and two games behind Toronto for fifth in the East. And a home-and-home with severely depleted Washington is on the horizon.
February. I typically feel as though February is the worst year of the month. It's cold here in Wisconsin, there aren't many excuses to celebrate, the NBA is in session but it's the middle of the year, much of the rest of the sporting world is in a slow period, and so on.
But thanks to a completely unforseen 10-4 month by the Bucks, I sort of wish February wasn't the shortest month of the year this year.
Not quite signed, sealed, or delivered. So, about that signature road win. Going into Atlanta on the second game of a back-to-back and beating the Hawks, 22-7 at home before tonight, would have been about as real as it gets. Despite six straight road wins, the Bucks were 8.5-point underdogs, and despite all of my newfound optimism, that sounded about right.
And so the slow start for Milwaukee didn't surprise. But they stormed right back, played it close, and then led throughout most of the fourth quarter. Skiles rode vets like Luke Ridnour and Jerry Stackhouse hoping to pin down that signature road win, but we are still waiting. Hopefully soon, but if it doesn't happen until a playoff rematch in Atlanta, that will suffice too.
O-boards. The Hawks ripped down 14 offensive rebounds and all sorts of them came at opportune times for the home team. The one that stood out the most was Josh Smith's offensive rebound with Atlanta down 92-90. Smith passed to Joe Johnson, who stuck a jumper to tie it up, leading to overtime.
J-Smoove. Josh Smith is really good, but he is in Bad because I'm not sure people recognize the extent to which he is really good. Clearly, the All-Star voters aren't good for much, but even the coaches missed on this one. And USA Basketball doesn't appear to recognize either. But after four months without playing the Hawks, at least the Bucks are now well aware of Smith's capability.
For all of the debate about Al Horford making the All-Star Game over Andrew Bogut, this game was a case study in why Josh Smith might be better than both. Smith hasn't earned a lot of official accolades -- no All-Star appearances and recently he was apparently also snubbed for USA Basketball's 27-man group for 2010-2012.
It's hard to understand why. Smith is a excellent defensive player, not only versatile like Luc Mbah a Moute but also a shot-blocker (2.1 per game) almost on Bogut's level. And not only is he an explosive offensive player, he is heady, having effectively phased out the three-point shot from his game after shooting low percentages and relatively high volumes before this season.