MILWAUKEE -- Every team starts every year with certain expectations. Considered individually, they make for nice thoughts. Taken collectively, there just aren't that many wins, playoff spots, and happy finishes to go around.
The Bucks have altered our expectations every step of the way through almost six months now, and the unique thing about that is that they are exceeding expectations, making us change what we think is possible, what we hope for, and what we consider to be realistic.
So with that in mind tonight is really just another night in a pleasantly unpredictable season.
Pinned to the bottom of the conference by most experts before the year, the Bucks marched into the playoffs. And once they got there, they naturally arrived with the lowest of expectations. And just as they sourly started the regular season in Philadelphia, they added reason to disbelieve by dropping two decisions in Atlanta in uninspiring fashion. Now tabbed a chic pick to get swept aside, Milwaukee came home and roused the crowd just as they did in the regular season home opener win over Detroit.
And while I predicted before the series the Bucks to steal this one and go down in five games, I can't say that I "expected" this result: an 18-point win that was more lopsided than that suggests. And now I can't say with much confidence that the Bucks will go down in five. Expectations, always-a-changin'. For the better.
The Hawks led this game 1-0 and the Bucks led every other score combination, including 93-65 with five and change to go. They built that 28-point cushion with a hot start by just about everyone, namely Brandon Jennings and John Salmons, who together made their first nine shots and combined for 22 points in a first quarter that was the exact opposite of the first quarter in Game One.
After watching the both the Heat and Bobcats go down 0-2 and then lose late leads at home, the Bucks built a big enough advantage to guarantee their playoff lives last a little longer than the aforementioned low Eastern Conference seeds sandwiched around them.
Of course, while the Bucks rocked the Hawks early and late, the road team did manage to close the gap a couple times in between. As fruitlessly as Milwaukee in Atlanta, but they did cut into the lead.
Up comfortably by 20 points 40 seconds before halftime, Joe Johnson got to the line and hit a couple free throws before Marvin Williams hit from outside. Originally awarded two points, a second look at halftime by the officials tacked on another point to make it 52-40. Then Johnson, ever the Bucks-killer, started the second half with a three-pointer before making two more free throws, trimming the lead to a rather manageable nine points at 54-45. That was the first time the lead fell to within single digits, and also the last time.
Carlos Delfino, who started the game by missing a corner three, had gone into the halftime locker room scoreless despite playing more minutes, 17, than any other Buck. He was 0-5 from the field, 0-2 on threes, and pretty much 0-for-the-series, really.
But after the Hawks got to within nine, Delfino sunk a corner three to push the lead to 12, and a couple minutes later he made another from the same place to go up 64-47. Plays of the game, and hopefully plays to get him going, because they need him on top of his game to have a chance to win more than a game.
The Bucks mostly cruised to this victory, making for a third straight double-digit difference in the series following regular season matchups that suggested closer games.
And while the games haven't been close, it's now a close series -- as close as possible after three games in fact. I'm not making predictions or forming expectations for Monday.
John Salmons. Salmons and Joe Johnson each made nine shots from the field, but Fish did it in exactly half as many (11) shot attempts.
After looking quite unlike the player we knew and came to love, or at least depend on, in the first two games in Hotlanta, Salmons gave us an ace performance with 22 points on 9-11 shooting along with seven assists, more than anyone else in the game. Finally getting the best of Johnson, he wound up with a very legitimate +29 differential, leading the Bucks to easily their best post-Bogut game of the season.
Brandon Jennings. The tone of each game so far has been set in the first quarter, and Brandon set the winning tone in the first this time. Jennings, never one to shy away from the spotlight, came out gunning and made three from outside within the game's first eight minutes. His third three gave the Bucks a 24-11 lead and the team pretty much coasted thereafter.
Brandon didn't pile up big numbers (13 points, 5 assists, 2 steals) and that's mostly because he didn't need to. He played 26 mostly mistake-free minutes as the Bucks had a comfortable enough lead to rest him late. Jennings initiated the onslaught from outside, didn't commit a single turnover, and played some serious defense, totaling two blocks and two steals, as we barely heard a peep from Mike Bibby (3-9, 0-3 on threes).
Luc Mbah a Moute. Scott Skiles said in the pregame presser that he would start by sticking The Prince on Josh Smith and the result was fantastic: None of those game-changing dunks, half as many blocks (1) as Brandon Jennings, as many field goals (2) as Primoz Brezec in 30 more minutes, as many assists (1) as Dan Gadzuric, and not many more reasons to like the city of Milwaukee for Smith, who was boo'd every time he touched the ball.
It wasn't all Mbah a Moute, and the The Principal said as much after the game, diplomatically noting the team's defensive effort. But he was the main guy battling and stifling Smith. And his 12 points on 5-7 shooting weren't just gravy, they were hugely important. He made the first hoop of the game inside, and all five of his field goals came at the rim -- which is just where we want him on the offensive end.
9. John Salmons (5-5) and Brandon Jennings (4-4) combined to make their first nine shots from the field in the first quarter. Among those makes were three threes for Young Buck. The first miss for either was a wide-open three from the top by Brandon, who hesitated based said openness. Together, the starting backcourt mates scored more points (22) than the Hawks (19) in the first period.
.513/.435/.938. A .500/.400/.900 shooting line over the course of a season is usually reserved for Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, (and oddly enough, almost Luke Ridnour this season) and the like. After failing to shoot 50 % from the field, 40.0 % from outside or 90.0 % from the line in either of the first two games, the Bucks put it all together at home in a superb all around shooting performance.
9 / 2. Josh Smith grabbed nine offensive rebounds, almost as many as the Bucks had altogether, 11. But contrast Smith's nine offensive boards with his mere two field goals (2-12 overall) and you'll begin to see that Milwaukee was staying after him. Highlights of the first couple games are littered with easy Smith baskets -- in Milwaukee, not so much.
First off, first on. It didn't take long to see how playing in Atlanta inspirited the Hawks and enervated the Bucks, as the home team strung together two straight blitzing first quarters to kick off the series. A 34-17 start ended Game One three quarters prematurely, and Atlanta took command with a double-digit first quarter lead again in Game Two.
The Bucks came home and followed the same script, pouring in 36 points, essentially ending the game from the start, and igniting the BC crowd something serious.
I never know really which comes first, does the crowd get the players going, or the fact that we played well get the crowd into it? It was great, great support. Even though there has been more electricity in our building this season than last, tonight was the most. And it was great for our guys to see and play in that environment.
Star quality. After two games in Atlanta, it was pretty obvious that the Hawks had the best player on the floor in the series, always a good thing in the playoffs. Whether that player was Josh Smith or Joe Johnson, it was certainly a Hawk. So really they had the two best players. To compound that problem, they also had the third best player in Al Horford. No other single playoff team can boast having the three best players. Not the Cavs, not the Lakers, not anyone, don't bother trying to think of another team.
So that doesn't bode well. But tonight John Salmons and Brandon Jennings showed star quality. Salmons found his pre-playoff form, pitching a near-perfect game, and Jennings, while finishing with a modest stat line (13 points, 5 assists) pretty much finished the Hawks from the start with three early triples. All season long the Bucks have played some of the most cohesive, attractive team basketball in the league. But at this point, against this level of competition, some heroic individual performances are necessary. And Salmons just delivered one.
Employees of the Year. May Day 2006. That was the last time Milwaukee hosted a playoff game, and that was 1,454 days ago. On that day, the still-in-their-day Pistons came into the Bradley Center and dropped the Bucks 109-99.
One of the foremost brains of Motor City's operation at the time: Vice President of Basketball Operations John Hammond. Earlier today Hammond was named Executive of the Year. Earlier this month, the Pistons missed the playoffs for the first time in nine years.
Hammond's honor came just days after Scott Skiles finished as runner-up in Coach of the Year voting.
The implication is that Hammond helped turn around the franchise by bringing in the right mix of players while Skiles simultaneously got a lot out of players that technically weren't all that great individually. And that's all true.
But this is a player's league. So let's give it up for John Salmons, who made Hammond look clairvoyant by carrying the team offensively from Day One through tonight, at least. To Carlos Delfino, for turning in a career year. To Andrew Bogut, for turning into a top twenty player in the world. To Kurt Thomas, for filling in nicely, thanks. And for at least tonight to Primoz Brezec, who didn't play at all like garbage in garbage time. To all the players. It's hard to stay mad at any of these guys.
Redy. Or not. I walked into the Bradley Center a couple hours before gametime and saw a red Fear the Deer rally towel draped on each and every seat. Quite a sight, and red was the theme of the day, as the Bucks hosted a "Redfest" in the plaza outside the stadium before the game. Except when the Bucks emerged from the tunnel, they dressed in conventional white uniforms, while the Hawks sported some fresh, red ATL jerseys, making the "red out" at the BC a bit confusing if not still pretty cool.
Only three home games. The bad news is that without home court advantage, the Bucks only get three home games. The good news is that the Bucks might actually get three home games.
Unfortunately, it takes four to win the series, and the Hawks are a different team in Atlanta, as both the regular season and postseason testify to. But while the Bucks must win at least one game in the A-T-L in order to move on to the second round, if they keep playing like this in Milwaukee, they might just only need to win one in Atlanta to win the series.
Timing. A fan shown on the jumbotron wearing a Cubs shirt was boo'd about half an hour before the tip. Meanwhile, across the highway the Cubs again beat the Brewers, and Miller Park again sold out. The Brewers have struggled just enough so that the showdown with their rivals to the south didn't completely overshadow Milwaukee's first playoff game in four years, but this certainly wasn't the most opportune night for the Bucks to steal the city's sporting attention.