MILWAUKEE -- Oh, Deer. We have a series.
Two days later, the Bradley Center turned white instead of red, but it was still 688 miles away from Philips Arena, and the Bucks were still red-hot when they weren't white-hot.
Milwaukee maintained their exquisite shooting form from over the weekend, but this time they found it easier closer to the hoop. Having gone a long way to figure out how to exploit the fast, constantly-switching, often-stuffing Atlanta defense, the Bucks made wildly successful forays into the painted area, led by Brandon Jennings.
Yes, the rookie kid point guard who too often personified the team's struggles to score inside throughout the last six months went on the attack, driving his way to a team-high 23 points. Jennings made five shots at the rim, and no three-pointers. Jennings, Dan Gadzuric, you know, the usual suspects doing harm around the hoop. Meanwhile, Carlos Delfino co-starred with Jennings by pouring in threes (6-8) to help offset a hot outside shooting night by Atlanta (10-19 on threes).
Unlike Game 3, this one wasn't all rosey from tip. The Hawks rushed to a 12-6 start as Mike Bibby made a couple quick threes (familiar, much?), as the Bucks looked a tad nervous with the ball early. But by the end of the first quarter, Delfino had snapped out of a funk and into hero mode, Gadzuric had three points, and the Bucks had a lead -- and they wouldn't trail again. So while this was the first game within single digits, Milwaukee mostly owned it.
It's not like the Hawks didn't wake up for this one. Joe Johnson (29/9/4), Mike Bibby (5-7 on threes), Josh Smith (20/9), and Jamal Crawford (21 points off the bench) certainly came to play, and the road team shot well, particularly from outside (10-19 on threes). Which makes this win even more encouraging -- Atlanta didn't just show up in Milwaukee expecting to win (or concede a game), and Milwaukee wasn't any longer riding the high of hosting a playoff game for the first time in years. This was simply a matchup of two teams that look more and more like even matches.
After four games, the series is tied, and the Bucks have even outscored the Hawks by five points overall. Tonight's win guarantees a Game Six on Friday at the BC. Worst-case scenario is that they will be playing to force a Game 7. Best-case scenario is they are playing to close out the series.
Not bad scenarios.
But first there is a little 688 mile trip to Atlanta, where the Bucks have lost and lost and lost all three games this season. And where they will have to win eventually if they want to win the series. Sooner rather than later.
Carlos Delfino. In the spirit and form of fellow Argentinian number tens Maradona and Messi, Delfino broke out of a series-long slump with superstar flair. You see, in Argentina, in fútbol, wearing #10 on your back is the ultimate honor, and while some pretty good guys have worn #23 in hoops, there is no basketball equivalent.
The point is this: Delfino delivered an absolutely tip-top performance, and as the one guy we were all waiting for to make it happen, this feels oh-so-satisfying. He caught fire from outside early and often, and threw down the play of the night with a ferocious slam dunk on Zaza Pachulia.
'Los hit an otherwordly 6-8 from downtown after making 2-11 on threes in the first three games of the series. Building on a couple timely second-half triples in Game 3, he wasted little time tonight, making three from outside in the first quarter to cancel out Mike Bibby's three bombs. And he stayed hot, ripping apart the nets for 22 emphatic points on 14 shots.
Brandon Jennings. A firefly zipping through the spring Milwaukee sky, Brandon illuminated the Bradley Center in unfamiliar style and familiar grace. The slight, three point artist bullied his way to five first half layups. This was quite the time for Jennings to learn how to finish in traffic, over big guys, at the rim.
Young Buck torched the Hawks in Game One, delivering one of the finest playoff debuts ever. But it was a perimeter-based game during which he made four from outside and plenty more step-back jumpers. Tonight, it was all around the basket for Brandon. Jennings made nine field goals, and not only were none threes, none were from outside 15 feet. If you've been following his rookie journey, this is the next step.
The Bucks went six straight mid-fourth quarter possessions without a basket -- until Brandon Jennings stumbled and then floated a nine-footer in to put the Bucks in front 94-86.
The best possible shot I could think -- the floater. Once I made the first one, came back down and made another one. That's just one of the best shots I have right now.
Floater? His shot right now? Confidence is building. He's getting cheered when he comes into games, when he goes out of games, and the swagger is approaching November levels. Look out.
Also: Six assists and one turnover.
John Salmons. Here is what I really liked: Salmons attempted a three pointer 56 seconds into the game, the team's first field goal attempt. And he didn't shoot another from outside in 41 more minutes on the court. Instead, he found other ways to make it work.
After scoring an absurdly efficient 22 points on 11 shots on Saturday, he scored an even more absurdly efficient 22 points on 9 shots tonight. These 22 were far more quiet than Delfino's 22, probably because eight of John's 22 came at the free throw line in the final minute and five seconds to ice the game. But let's not belittle the value of having someone who makes all eight free throws to ice the game.
Salmons, as usual, played the most minutes (41:58) on the Bucks for a reason, and he again outplayed Joe Johnson, no small feat.
44-26. Probably the biggest concern of all the big post-Bogut concerns was how the Bucks would score inside, how they would get easy buckets. And for a while, they simply didn't. Tonight Milwaukee outscored Atlanta 44-26 in the paint, and the conversion rates are even more striking.
The Hawks shot 13-29 (.448) in the paint while the Bucks made 22-34 (.647). Without 'Drew roaming on the inside, it seemed the Bucks had little chance to defend the paint or score inside it. Check and check.
87.5 % The Bucks made 28-32 (.875) free throws, making more from the line (28) than the Hawks attempted (21), and at a great percentage. Who are these guys.
We are the only team in the shot-clock era to make the playoffs when our opponents have made more free throws than we've attempted. And in this series, they've made more than we attempted.
2. Two blocks for the Hawks. Josh Smith had five blocks alone in Game One.
Bradley Center. The place was positively rockin'. From Josh Smith getting booed into submission during the pregame introductions to a "Let's Go Bucks" chant that started the game louder than anything than during the already-loud Game 3, this was pure euphoria from start to finish.
A "FEAR THE DEER" chant shook the building late in the game, and about 45 minutes after the final whistle I could still hear the same chant as Brandon Jennings and Carlos Delfino sat to answer questions from the media. That wasn't just because it was still ringing in my ears, either, the fans tonight were just that pumped for that long.
Filling in for Bogut. So, so much went right in Game 3 that I wrote 2,000+ words and neglected to mention the tremendous nights of Kurt Thomas and Dan Gadzuric. My bad / They're good.
For the second game in a row, Thomas and Gadzuric outplayed Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia and I just want to copy/paste plaster that all over the screen. I don't think even the idealists saw this coming.
Dan used those go-go-Gadzuric arms to swat shots, gather offensive boards, bother Josh Smith on the block, even drain a side jumper. Frank and I watched Gadz hit jumpers all throughout warmups, but it still always seems so improbable in gametime. This is the best we have seen from Gadzuric in years, and years, and years.
He's now 7-8 (.875) from the field in the past two games, and has somehow gotten the better of Al Horford (8 points, 8 rebounds) in both of the home games. We're talking about a 37 year-old who was an afterthought in the Richard Jefferson trade repeatedly outplaying a 23 year-old All-Star -- on the statsheet, and on all of the other levels, too.
Before Game 3, Skiles spoke about how the Bucks weren't playing like themselves in Atlanta, noting just two charges drawn. Well, in one of the most crucial plays of the game, up 101-95 with just over a minute to go, Thomas drew a charge on Jamal Crawford.
We just try to keep them on their heels, instead of their toes.
Thomas played like the guy who was in the heart of all those Knicks playoff series in the late 1990's and early 2000's tonight, getting all tangled up with the increasingly frustrated frontcourt of Horford and Smith in the paint, laughing his way (here's looking at you, Bibby) to another win.
Take it away, Kurt:
I just thought it was a pretty good shot by Bibby. I guess I can tell he's been in the weight room... But it's okay.
Pivotal Game 4. Often you hear Game 5 is the big one, but tonight was really it in this series.
In playoff history, only 8 of 189 (4.2 %) of teams have come back to win after trailing 3-1. That's what the Bucks were facing with a loss. Instead, it's 2-2, which obviously is 50 % looking at things the same way. And while the Hawks retain a decided advantage with home court, the Bucks now have hope.
THREE TWO BAD
Bibby's one dimension. Still haven't conquered it.
This game marked the third time this year that Mike Bibby has rained in three triples in the first quarter alone against the Bucks. The first two times ended in losses. This time Carlos Delfino saved the day, but let's close out on Bibby. He doesn't do much of anything else. Tonight he made 5-7 from outside, 0-4 on other field goals, and 0-0 at the line.
Georgia on my mind. The Hawks haven't lost in Atlanta since February 26. That was two months ago. Good grief.