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Hawks 96, Bucks 86: No answers for Smith and Horford

Two games, two ten point losses, and no answers for Atlanta's fearsome frontcourt.   

Yes, Joe Johnson again scored more points (27 on 23 shots), but what really killed the Bucks was another vexing performance from Josh Smith, whose near triple-double (21 pts, 11 shots, 14 rebounds, nine assists) was every bit as dominant as it looked on paper.  Bullying on the block, dunking in transition, ooping over flat-footed defenders, crashing the boards--heck, Smith even buried a corner jumper.  Delfino or Ilyasova, it didn't particularly matter who was defending him.  Add to that Al Horford's abuse of Kurt Thomas (20 pts on 13 shots, 10 rebs, 3 blk for Al vs. no points and four rebounds for KT), and there really isn't too much mystery to the end result.  

And perhaps the most depressing part?  Unlike game one, there was no second half comeback to give the Bucks a glass half-full of confidence going into game three.  The Hawks simply wore them down, weathering every Bucks' spurt.  While the Bucks seemed to battle to the end of game one, Scott Skiles had to wave the white flag in the final minutes of game two. 

Though the Bucks once again showed some early nerves, they managed to hang with Atlanta for two quarters in large part thanks to a ton of second chances and a dogged determination to go inside.   Of little help was the star of Saturday, Brandon Jennings.  Perhaps predictably, he was completely ineffective after his 34 point outing on Saturday, going 1/10 in the first half and seeing four of his shots rejected by Atlanta's mobile big men.  It didn't seem like the defense was any tougher on him tonight than Saturday, but as we've often seen, the defense often doesn't have much to say about how much Brandon scores.   

Thankfully, the Bucks' garbage men earned their keep and then some.  Luc Mbah a Moute took advantage of Smith mostly (and probably understandably) ignoring him to score eight of the Bucks' first ten in the first quarter, all of them coming within a couple feet of the rim.  In the second it was Ersan Ilyasova's turn, the Turk taking advantage of the Bucks' wayward jump-shooting to collect five offensive rebounds and score 13 points by the intermission.  The Bucks also seemed more intent on exploiting size mismatches, particularly with Delfino looking to post Bibby.  I won't argue it was all that effective, but at least it was different, forcing Atlanta to double and create room for the Bucks to move the ball around the perimeter.  

It's not to say the Bucks were playing well, even if their 52-46 deficit the half seemed rather awesome compared to the 22 point deficit at halftime of game one.  Aside from some brutal jump-shooting (4/24 on threes overall), they of course had no answer for Smith and Horford inside.  While part of it was Delfino again being overwhelmed by Smith's size on the block, much of it was also a lack of focus and a tendency to stand around and watch the Hawks do their thing.  Just as in game one, Smith and Horford both scored eight points apiece in the first quarter--including Smith inexcusably scoring six in the final 32 seconds thanks to a pair of stupid turnovers by Ridnour and Salmons. The Bucks' transition defense was largely non-existent (the Hawks' 22-10 margin seemed like more), and both Ilyasova and Thomas (as well as any help defenders) were caught napping in the halfcourt on backdoor alley-oops for Smith and Horford, respectively.  

The Hawks then quickly jumped on the Bucks in the third, Salmons missing a jumper and turning it over twice in an 11-2 Atlanta run that featured seven from Marvin Williams (remember him?).  Jennings scored seven straight as he looked to shake off the rust on his jumper, but it turned out to be fool's gold--he didn't score again and the Bucks couldn't make much headway beyond that. Instead they missed six straight shots and went scoreless for four minutes to help Atlanta stretch to an 18-point lead.  Skiles found some help in the fourth with a Ridnour / Salmons / Delfino / Stackhouse / Gadzuric lineup that reeled Atlanta back to within eight with 7:20 left, but Johnson scored seven straight on long jumpers to put the game out of reach.        

Three Bucks

Ersan Ilyasova: 24 min, 13 pts, 5/10 fg, 1/2 threes, 2/2 ft, 15 reb, 1 stl, 1 blk, 3 to
Ilyasova's night more or less summarized that of the Bucks.  He was the biggest reason for the Bucks' hanging within within six at half, but went 0/3 and didn't score a point in the second half as the Bucks similarly .  His size also wasn't much of a deterrent to stopping Smith, who lost him on a number of plays for easy buckets.  

Jerry Stackhouse: 24 min, 15 pts, 5/8 fg, 2/3 threes, 3/4 ft, 4 reb, 2 ast, 1 stl, 1 blk, 0 to
Stackhouse bounced back from a poor game one to lead the Bucks' second unit with an extremely efficient scoring night.  He also did it in versatile fashion, burying a couple threes but also getting to the rack on a handful of occasions--yes, there was even a drive and dunk in the third quarter.  He was also part of the largely unsuccessful defense-by-committee approach on JJ in the fourth, but I thought he hung in surprisingly well against Johnson for most of the night.  

John Salmons: 40 min, 21 pts, 10/23 fg, 0/5 threes, 1/1 ft, 3 reb, 4 ast, 1 stl, 1 bs, 3 to
Salmons was anonymous early, and not even a nice second half scoring line (14 points) could salvage a night where he provided a nice number of points on far too many shots.  Salmons had most of his success attacking the Hawks' switching defense in the fourth, beating big men (mostly Zaza) repeatedly off the bounce, but his jumper is completely shot right now.  He's now 0/10 from three for the series and looks to be forcing a lot of jumpers.

Three Numbers

26-10.  The Hawks run a ton of isolation plays, which partly explains how a team that's so good offensively only ranked 12th in assists.  No such issue tonight.  The Hawks got out in transition and worked the ball around better than usual (26 dimes) while also turning it over just 10 times.  The Bucks improved on their pathetic 11/12 figures from game one with 18 assists and 12 turnovers, but it wasn't good enough.

16.7%.  It's not like the Bucks were getting bad looks, but they simply couldn't make threes (4/24).  The starters were especially brutal, as Jennings (1/6), Salmons (0/5) and Delfino (0/4) combined for just 1/16.  Good luck winning like that.

52-48.  Believe it or not, the Bucks actually outscored Atlanta in the paint 52-48.  With the exception of Jennings, the Bucks ended up doing a pretty good job taking advantage of the Hawks' switching and increasing tendency to overplay perimeter passing lanes.  Delfino put the ball on the floor and drove for three hoops in the first half, Salmons got it going a bit in the second, and the Luc/Ersan combo did the dirty work cleaning up all those Bucks' misses.  

Two Good

Bench.  The Bucks' subs accounted for about 100 of the Bucks' total 240 minutes but contributed 40 of their 86 points on 16/29 shooting.  And remarkably all seven had a positive point differential despite the Bucks losing by double digits. 

Homeward bound.  Atlanta improved to 36-7 at home, including 3-0 against the Bucks.  Heading back to the Bradley Center couldn't come soon enough.  

Three Bad

Defense. The Bucks were not a good defensive team without Andrew Bogut over the final six games, and playing against an extremely talented and explosive Atlanta squad has only further underscored that.  I love Scott Skiles' system and it worked wonders this year, but the team that finished second in defensive efficiency effectively doesn't exist without Bogut's mobility, rebounding, and shot-blocking in the middle.  And when the players who are left don't get back in transition or get caught ball-watching, it's over.  

Ironically, the Bucks' 110 pts/100 allowed tonight was actually their best defensive efficiency mark of the last five games, but that's still 7 pts/100 worse than their overall season average.  Meanwhile, the Bucks' 99.0 offensive efficiency rating tonight was also the first time in seven contests they've been held below 103.7.  To put that in perspective, they averaged 105 for the season.  

Starters.  I mentioned this the other day as well: the Bucks' starting unit just isn't very good (-6.5 pts/100 possessions in the regular season).  It's not to say the Bucks' bench is a more productive group pound-for-pound (they tend to face weaker competition obviously), but relatively speaking they're usually better than the other team's bench.  Based on what we've seen over the past few weeks, the Bucks' recipe for winning seems to be a) hope that the starters keep it close and b) let the bench build a lead.  It also makes you wonder whether it's worth keeping everything constant rather than, for instance, putting Ilyasova in for Delfino or Mbah a Moute.  

Matchups. Obvious statement warning: the Bucks simply don't match up well with the Hawks.  I guess that goes without saying when one team is a lot better than the other, but even putting that aside, the Bucks have only one guy capable of staying with Johnson and I'm not sure there's anyone that can handle Smith.  Throw in Al Horford's huge edge inside against the Bucks depleted centers, and there's not much to do.  While we've focused on JJ and Smith, Horford's combination of mobility and midrange shooting is increasingly causing the Bucks problems, and Thomas' jumper and defensive awareness seem to be abandoning him at the worst possible time.