Scott Skiles probably coaches defense better than anyone else in basketball, but after game one of the Bucks/Hawks series it's clear he's got his hands full. We all know the Bucks' second-ranked defense isn't the same without Andrew Bogut, but even the presence of Bogut might not have been enough to counter the combination of sharp-shooting and physicality the Hawks brought in the first quarter on Saturday.
Defending Josh Smith...and Joe Johnson. Coming into game one, the focus was largely on Johnson, who as everyone by now knows averaged 27.3 ppg and toyed with the Bucks' wing defenders in the teams' three regular season meetings. That prompted Scott Skiles to put defensive ace Luc Mbah a Moute on Johnson for much of the game, while leaving Carlos Delfino to battle against the bigger Josh Smith down low. As J.D. Mo writes over at the Bob Boozer Jinx, Mbah a Moute did about as well as you can expect against Johnson, who scored 22 points but needed 21 shots and didn't make a single free throw.
But watching Smith bully Delfino down low raises a follow-up question: is Johnson really the guy the Bucks should be most worrying about? Though he averages fewer points than Johnson, Smith is probably the Hawks' most dynamic threat: too big for SFs and too quick for most PFs, he's developed into an extremely tough post cover who also grabbed offensive rebounds at the same rate as Ersan Ilyasova (9.0% of available boards, slightly above average for PFs). Putting a smaller player on him opens a Pandora's box of problems, as it improves his ability to score in the post and crash the boards, while if you double him he kicks it out and lets Johnson and Bibby hurt you with open jumpers.
Like many teams, the Bucks don't have anyone who's a natural cover for him, though Mbah a Moute probably stands the best chance, Ilyasova probably coming in second. If you leave Ersan on the bench, then it becomes a matter of comparative advantage: Luc may be better than Delfino in absolute terms against both Johnson and Smith, but there's only one Luc on the court at any given time. So you have to think of it as a package: is Delfino guarding Smith and Mbah a Moute guarding Johnson better than the opposite matchup?
Based on the first quarter of game one you'd probably say no, and Delfino was uncharacteristically a non-factor throughout. Though the Bucks made a nice run in the third with their starters on the court, Delfino didn't score and benefited from Atlanta looking a bit smug with their 22 point halftime lead. As noted at Retractable Roof, Delfino was a damn good defensive small forward this season, so there's something to be said for giving him another chance against Johnson. John Salmons is also a perfectly respectable defender (who also seemed to struggle guarding Johnson), and I also prefer him on Marvin Williams simply because it allows Salmons to save more of his energy for the offensive end. I'd also argue that it's not just Delfino matching up with Smith that's the problem--it's the fact that Smith doesn't have to guard Delfino on defense when Mbah a Moute is also on the court. Putting Bibby on Delfino essentially dared the Bucks to make Delfino a post player, while Smith was nominally tasked with defending Mbah a Moute but had little responsibility given Luc's lack of jump shot. Smith is a menace on defense even when he's being forced to cover his man, but when he's free to run around and help on other guys it's even tougher. So you could make a good case that if you're going to play small on Smith you should do it with a small lineup of shooters (like Jennings/Ridnour/Salmons/Delfino)--in other words, a lineup that will at least demand he play perimeter defense.
Offense has not been the problem. The quick answer to the offensive problem--which Skiles went to a couple weeks ago in Milwaukee--is to bench Mbah a Moute and use Ilyasova instead. In game one, Ilyasova didn't even get in the game until the Bucks were down 19, helping to explain how he was the only Milwaukee who managed a positive +/- differential (+3). But the "offensive problem" has largely been overstated for the Bucks since Bogut went down, which I've been harping on a lot lately. In game one they were above their season average in points scored/possession, just as they have been on average since Bogut got hurt. Yes, it's a small sample size, but that shouldn't distract from the real problem: defense. The Bucks have allowed an average of almost 118 pts/100 possessions over their last four contests, a massive spike considering they allowed an average of 103 over the course of the entire season and just 99 in the 23 game stretch between Salmons' acquisition and Bogut's injury.
While I don't think there's an easy solution to any of this, I also don't think the Bucks can give the Hawks much of a challenge unless their best defender is playing major minutes. The most obvious solution is pairing him with Ilyasova, who has a better chance of defending Smith while still offering floor-stretching abilities on the other end. It still allows Smith the freedom that comes with guarding Mbah a Moute, but at least it's not the worst of both worlds. Would Skiles consider shifting Delfino to the bench? I'm not so sure, but at the very least he can't wait until the Bucks are down 19 to give Ilyasova a shot. Or he can simply try using Delfino on Johnson again, which on paper shouldn't be such a terrible matchup.
As much as Skiles might want to stick with his current starting unit, they were outscored by an average of 6.5 pts/100 possessions during the regular season, so it's not like that group has done particularly well. Meanwhile, we only saw five minutes of regular season play with Ilyasova joining Jennings, Salmons, Mbah a Moute, and Thomas, so there's little precedent for that group working together (they played just over a minute together in the third quarter of game one).
Exploiting mismatches. After the last regular season game between the teams, Paul Imig reported on Skiles' concern that the Bucks guards didn't take advantage of perimeter switches.
"They're switching centers onto our guards," Skiles said. "A pro guard has got to be able to go by a center and do something. That's the reality of it, and we took way too many jump shots. We drove some, had a little bit of success, but it's something we've got to be much better at.
"Nothing against Al (Horford) or Zaza (Pachulia), but if those guys are switching onto point guards and two-guards, you've got to make them pay. And we didn't do a very good job of that."
Jennings and Ridnour both appeared to make a more concerted effort to drive when the Hawks switched, and both had some success on that front--when Horford and Smith weren't blocking their shots into the third row. That's probably about as much as we can expect from the point guards, both of whom struggle to finish around the cup.
What hasn't been talked about is the flipside of the big defender-on-point guard mismatch--if Horford is guarding Jennings, then somewhere you've got a Hawk guard defending a Bucks frontcourt player. Unfortunately, the Bucks have been completely unable to exploit those matchups as well. The Hawks started the game with Johnson defending Jennings and Bibby checking Delfino, yet the Bucks only got one post-up from Delfino in the opening period despite his significant size/strength advantage. Obviously most guards aren't used to working out of the post--if they were you might see Jennings posted up more as well--but I'd still argue that you have to attack Bibby in those scenarios. Even if Delfino isn't a natural down low, he can still easily shoot over Bibby or kick it out if the Hawks bring help.
Because he sets so many screens, Ilyasova also frequently ends up with a small player guarding him, but unfortunately he has some of the worst post instincts you'll find in a 6'10" player (a fadeaway jumper is not the preferred outcome when you have an eight inch height advantage).