Maybe the Bucks just needed to check their alarm clocks.
Twelve minutes into the Bucks' first postseason appearance in four years, the Bucks looked, well, like a team that hasn't been to the playoffs since 2006. And as long as we're looking for excuses, maybe the 5:30 Eastern start time was also playing tricks on the Bucks.
Atlanta came out looking bigger, quicker, and flat-out better, blitzing the flat-footed Bucks 34-17 in the first en route to a 22-point halftime lead that the Bucks couldn't overcome. Behind a fearless 34-point effort from Brandon Jennings, the Bucks gave the Hawks a run the second half and at least salvaged their dignity going into game two, but they also got clear confirmation of what their up against: a damn good Hawks team.
Admittedly, it wasn't an immediate beatdown--the teams split the first 12 points of the game. But Atlanta then went on a 26-6 run that featured a whole lot of Josh Smith and Al Horford dunking, blocking and generally dominating the Bucks' frontline. We knew this could happen, but I guess I didn't expect it to happen so quickly. The pair combined for a modest 27 overall, but they set the tone early with 16 of the Hawks' 34 in the opening period.
Meanwhile, Jennings was the only Buck showing any intention of fighting back, drilling a three to close out the first and then ripping off another 13 points in the second, including the last nine of the half. Unfortunately he had little help. While Atlanta continued to bully the Bucks inside and drill every open look they got (I'm looking at you, Mike Bibby), Jennings scored half the Bucks' 40 first half points, many of them on step-back jumpers and contested threes.
But he also looked determined to test the Hawks' switching defense more than when the teams last met in Milwaukee, flipping in a couple floaters as well as a short glasser near halftime. Smith and Horford each packed a couple of his efforts into the stands as well, showing that the Hawks weren't going to give up anything easily, but at least Jennings was giving them something to think about. Atlanta also had the Bucks chasing shadows on the other end, dropping 62 in the half on 62% shooting that featured four Hawks in double figures.
The Bucks finally began to make some progress in the third, as Salmons shrugged off an anonymous first half to get his mid-range game going with 12 points, matching another dozen from Jennings as the Bucks outscored Atlanta 30-19 in the period. The Hawks' energy level seemed to sag a bit after their huge first half, but the Bucks couldn't get over the hump in the fourth despite twice cutting the Hawks' lead to just seven. Luke Ridnour gave Jennings four minutes of rest to start the period, but the rookie seemed to lose his touch on the bench and made just 1/5 to close the game, his lone bucket coming on a driving layup with 74 seconds left.
But even that was better than Salmons, who went scoreless in the final period. The upside was that the other Bucks finally did something: Mbah a Moute's activity translated into six points and Ridnour and Ilyasova each added five points. In the end, Crawford, Bibby and Johnson made enough jumpers to close it out, but Atlanta was at least offered a reminder of the Bucks' fighting spirit.
Brandon Jennings: 40 min, 34 pts, 14/25 fg, 4/6 threes, 2/4 ft, 3 reb, 3 ast, 1 stl, 3 to
Jennings spoke before the game about needing to keep his emotions in check, but let's hope he doesn't lose any of his swagger or edginess in the process. While the rest of the Bucks seemed unprepared for the increased intensity level of the playoffs, the rookie again rose to the occasion and carried the Bucks on his young, narrow shoulders for three full quarters. His 34 points were also the fourth-best playoff debut in NBA history, just shy of the 36 points Derrick Rose dropped against the Celtics last year. Perhaps the most encouraging thing was how he was doing it. Yes, he had his slingshot jumper going from all over the court, but he also showed no fear in attacking the Hawks' shot-blockers and coming away with 10/19 shooting from two in addition to 4/6 from deep. While the Hawks blocked five of his shots, the Bucks really can't afford for him to be any less aggressive than he was tonight.
John Salmons: 43 min, 16 pts, 6/18 fg, 0/5 threes, 4/4 ft, 5 reb, 2 ast, 6 stl, 2 to
Salmons never got his longball working and generally had a long night coping with the Hawks' aggressive, shot-blocking defense. He finally got things going in the third quarter to get the Bucks back in the game, but a scoreless fourth quarter (on just two shots) left plenty to be desired.
Luc Mbah a Moute: 31 min, 8 pts, 4/5 fg, 0/1 ft, 6 reb, 1 stl, 0 to
For better or worse, Skiles seemed determined to get Mbah a Moute his minutes, starting him against Johnson and leaving Delfino to cope with the bigger Smith. It's tough to argue it was a good strategy in the first, but the Bucks' starters looked a lot better in the third and overall Mbah a Moute helped limit Johnson to 22 points on 21 shots.
11-1. The block stats underscore Atlanta's physical dominance rather glaringly. Horford (5 blk) and Smith (4 blk) move exceptionally well on the perimeter and give the Hawks a ton of flexibility--not only do they erase teammates' defensive mistakes, but they also allow the Hawks to switch all over the place. The fact that none of the Bucks' frontcourt players are capable of taking advantage of a mismatched smaller player is also a big issue (Ersan, I'm looking at you).
80. All five Hawk starters scored at least 12 points, four of them hitting double-digits by halftime, and Crawford added his customary 17 off the bench. While they didn't get much else from their bench, 80 points from the starting five meant they didn't have to.
0. The Bucks had zero assists in the first quarter, which summed up the first 12 minues pretty well. Jennings largely seemed to be going it alone, the Hawks were closing out well when the Bucks moved the ball, and the Bucks seemed incapable of making a shot for most of the period.
Brandon Jennings. We all expected Jennings to be the series x-factor for the Bucks, and he didn't disappoint. The problem was the lack of support--aside from Salmons' third quarter, the other Bucks just seemed content to sit back and watch Jennings put on his show.
Taking it to the rack. Since Bogut's injury I've been droning on a lot about the Bucks' problems scoring in the paint--six straight games with 28 or fewer points, blah blah blah. So it was at least somewhat encouraging to see the Bucks keep it fairly close in that category for a change, swallowing their pride and going at the Hawks' shot-blockers. As much as the Hawks seemed to be dominating inside much of the night (+10 blocks, +5 rebounding), they won the points in the paint category by just a four point margin (46-42).
Fighting Back. The Bucks just aren't the kind of team that lays down and lets another club beat them up for four quarters, so you kind of knew they'd make the Hawks sweat a bit in the second half. And while moral victories aren't too valuable in a seven game series, it was at least encouraging to see the Bucks appear to figure some things out in the second half. Hopefully some of that learning and confidence carries over to game two.
Defenseless. For all their early shooting struggles, the Bucks' offensive efficiency ended up at a rather healthy 106.2 pts/100 possessions, slightly above their season average. But the Hawks averaged over 117 pts/100 possessions on 53% shooting, nearly matching the 118 pts/100 they put up in Milwaukee last Monday. The defensive problems are becoming part of a worrying pattern of late: in the past week, the Bucks' defensive efficiency has been worse than 113 pts/100 in four straight games against Atlanta and Boston.
Swingmen. Salmons and Delfino basically had one good quarter (Salmons' 12 point third) out of a combined eight. Delfino was essentially invisible with four points on four shots, his lowest point total since mid-January (excluding the Miami game where he suffered that ugly neck injury). And while Salmons managed to scrape together a semi-respectable line, the Bucks will probably need a much bigger night from him to take game two. Overall, the Bucks would have been much better off had Skiles gone with a Luc/Ersan combo at the forward spots from the start, but that's the great thing about hindsight I suppose. I'd expect Delfino to bounce back in game two, but the fact that Mbah a Moute has the best chance of stopping Johnson and Ilyasova is probably a better matchup for Smith could make it harder for Skiles to rationalize Delfino's usual 35-40 minutes.
Ready...or not. We probably should have known we were in trouble when we saw this game was going to be on ESPN. While Atlanta fed off their crowd's energy, the Bucks seemed to be playing scared early and needed a full half before they had gotten their bearings.