We'll have our usual pregame thread up in a bit, but I wanted to first highlight some key subplots we'll be following over the course of the series. You can check out more in the Q&A I did for Peachtree Hoops yesterday.
Four Factors: Bucks D vs. Atlanta O
We all know how the Bucks win: they force turnovers (4th in the league), prevent second chances (3rd), and are top ten in eFG% as well (8th). Put it all together and you've got the second-best defense in the league by the all-important standard of points per possession, in spite of the fact that they rank second to last in free throw rate.
The offensive end has been more of a struggle, as the Bucks' only strongsuit is hanging on to the ball (4th in turnover rate). They were in the top ten in pace for much of the first half of the season but have slowed down considerably in the new year and finished the second 19th overall. And though you might have expected the Bogut injury to encourage a more up-tempo style, they actually slowed down even further without their big man. Considering they've been a miserable transition team for most of the year, that's perhaps not the worst thing in the world.
Meanwhile, Atlanta's second-ranked offense is predicated more on shot-creation than shot-making. They lead the league in turnover rate and rank fifth in offensive rebound rate, but were just 23rd in free throw rate and 12th in eFG%. Atlanta was middle-of-the-pack defensively (13th in efficiency), ranking slightly below average in both eFG% allowed and forcing turnovers and well below average in defensive rebounding (24th).
How do the Bucks contain Joe Johnson?
The Bucks didn't seem to have much of answer for Johnson in the teams' three regular season games, as JJ shot 50% from the field and 53.8% from three in scoring 27.3 ppg. Lights-out numbers for a guy who averaged 21.3 ppg and .458/.369 for the season. But it may not have been quite as bad as it seemed. Thanks in part to the fact that he made just five free throws combined, Johnson's TS% was a solid-but-not-great 54.2%, only a hair better than his season average of 53.8% and below the Hawks' team average of 54.5% (14th in the league). But what's most worrying about Johnson is how easily he has been able to get quality shots. He's quick enough to cause Delfino and Salmons problems off the dribble, and he's also excellent at using his size to back opponents down and shoot over them from close range. That could be a major source of frustration late in games.
Containing Johnson would probably be easier if Scott Skiles could find a way to get Luc Mbah a Moute more involved, but that's been a tougher task since Bogut went down. Though Mbah a Moute continues to start at the 4, it's become increasingly difficult to get him minutes late in games, especially as a wing defender. That's in large part due to his complete inability to hit jump shots (28% this year, down from 36% a year ago). He's been super-efficient around the cup (62%) and slightly better in-between, but the Bucks' need to keep as many shooters on the court as possible left Mbah a Moute as the odd man out in the recent losses to Boston and Atlanta, despite the fact that Johnson and Paul Pierce were killing the Bucks for much of the game.
Can the Bucks do anything besides settle for long jumpers?
Aside from John Salmons' often circuitous drives, probably not. Since Bogut went down, the Bucks have upped their three point shooting from about 22 attempts/game to 27, but they've traded off lower efficiency as well (35.2% to 32.7%). Inside there's been very little to talk about--the Bucks haven't scored more than 28 points in the paint in any of their six games without Bogut, which is rather terrible when you consider Portland was worst in the league at 36.5 points/game. The Bucks weren't much better at 37.0 (3rd worst), but without Bogut they're miles worse than even the Blazers. Contributing to the Bucks' problems was their inability to take advantage of the Hawks' switching defense, which frequently saw Horford and Smith switched onto the Bucks' guards.
All that said, the Bucks' one-dimensional offense hasn't actually hurt them statistically. In the 17-6 stretch between Salmons' acquisition and Bogut's injury, the Bucks scored 105.4 pts/100 possessions, slightly above their season average of 104.9 pts/100 (23rd overall). In the admittedly small sample size of six games since Bogut went down, their offensive efficiency actually increased to 108.4. If you include the Phoenix game, it goes up to 110.3. And even in the two losses to Atlanta (109.0) and Boston (104.5) it wasn't the offense which was the issue.
While the Bucks have been predictably worse on the offensive glass without Bogut, their conservative perimeter game has also meant fewer turnovers and they've shot the ball better as well. The turnover story is particularly interesting because they were a top five team even before Bogut got hurt (14.2% overall), but since the injury they've turned it over on just 11% of their possessions. To put that in perspective, Atlanta's league-leading figure was 13.2%. They've also gotten to the line at a slightly higher rate without Bogut, though that's not saying too much since they finished the year dead last in that category. I wouldn't expect the Bogut-less Bucks to continue those kinds of numbers over the long haul, and in a seven game series it could be difficult to keep Atlanta on their toes with a one trick pony offense. But it goes to show that the Bucks' ugly offense isn't as impotent as you might expect.
So about that defense...
The 79-74 battle of attrition win in Chicago got the post-Bogut era off to a good start defensively, but the Bucks' hole in the middle has been exposed on a number of occasions since then. While Thomas has done about as well you could expect, he simply can't cover the same amount of real estate Bogut can and doesn't control the glass as well either. That's especially problematic for a team like the Bucks, which relies so heavily on rotations and defensive chemistry to make up for a general lack of great individual defenders. Between Salmons' acquisition and Bogut's injury, the Bucks held opponents to just 99.4 pts/100 possessions, well below their season average of 103.1. Since the injury, that figure has ballooned to over 105 pts/100.
While Johnson has scored plenty against the Bucks, Josh Smith could be even more important because of the ripple effect he has on everyone else. Though Smith's scoring numbers weren't huge against the Bucks (14.0 ppg), he shot efficiently (53%) and also killed the Bucks on the boards (10.7 rpg) and as a shot-blocker (3.7 bpg). Smith is ridiculously efficient inside (66%) but rather terrible outside the paint, so it's easy to say you have to keep him outside, but a different thing entirely to actually do it. He's wisely quit shooting threes altogether, but has wiped out much of the benefit by shooting more long two pointers--a pretty bad trade when you compare his 29% accuracy on long twos to his 44% eFG% on threes a year ago. Neither Ilyasova nor Mbah a Moute has the ideal combination of strength and quickness to contain Smith in isolation, but it might be better to let Smith bully them down low than double and give up open threes to Johnson and Bibby.
The Hawks' size could also cause problems in the backcourt. We already know how well Johnson uses his combination of size and quickness, but the Hawks can also go big at the point with Jamal Crawford, who played 26% of the Hawks' minutes at the point according to 82games. Crawford creates mismatch problems for both Ridnour and Jennings, though in theory that should also create opportunities for them to get more things going to the hoop. Either way, the fact that Johnson gets most of the SG minutes makes it very difficult to play Jennings and Ridnour in tandem, a combination that we saw a lot of early in the season and which has again become a favorite option of Skiles since Bogut went down. If you're going to be a perimeter-oriented team then having good ball-handlers who can shoot threes is always a good thing, but it doesn't seem to be a viable option on defense when Johnson is at the 2.