In a season full of mediocrity on the road, the Bucks sure picked a hell of a time to get things together, didn't they? And the Hawks? Well, they've picked a heck of a time to lose their way. No, the series is by no means over, but a week after Atlanta was brimming with confidence after consecutive, comprehensive home wins, the Hawks are staring at what seemed like the unthinkable: a game six in Milwaukee where their playoff lives will be at stake.
It's not that a Bucks win was inconceivable, not after the way they dominated the Hawks twice in Milwaukee. But we also knew that was kind of Atlanta's deal--awesome at home (36-7) but, um...sketchy on the road (18-25). Maybe Atlanta felt it could just flip the switch like they did in games one and two, or perhaps they simply expected the Bucks wouldn't have the firepower to dig themselves out of a second half hole that didn't seem to shrink no matter what they did. Down 13 late in the third and nine with just four minutes left in the game, the Bucks were fighting but just not landing enough punches.
But aided by Atlanta's self-destruction, the final four minutes saw the Bucks make big shots (Delfino and Salmons), big hustle plays (Ilyasova twice), and enough big free throws (notably by Brandon Jennings) to turn a nine point deficit into an improbable and amazing four point win. Get ready for an absolutely electric game six at the Bradley Center on Friday.Honestly, it didn't have to be this way for Atlanta. Though Brandon Jennings was again putting on an early show to keep the Bucks nipping at the Hawks' heels in the first half, the Hawks got huge performances from Marvin Williams (22 pts, 8/10 fg) and Al Horford (25 pts, 11 rebs)--two guys who had been notably absent in the state of Wisconsin. But Joe Johnson (6/16 fg) and Josh Smith (3/8, 7 pts) were blanketed by Salmons and Luc Mbah a Moute, and Atlanta was even misfiring in transition (12-10 Bucks edge). The Bucks broke up a number of first half fast break chances, the sort of chances that Atlanta thrived on in the series' first two games.
Still, when Josh Smith ripped a long jumper with four minutes left it looked like curtains for the Bucks--down 82-73, there hadn't been much indication the Bucks could score enough points to get back in it. And so it began. John Salmons shrugged off his cold shooting and drove right at the Hawks to draw the foul and make a pair of free throws, and Smith somehow lost the ball on the ensuing possession with nothing standing between him and a dunk. Salmons then calmly drained a wing three off a screen to cut the lead to four, and the Hawks showed their nerves again on the next possession. Jamal Crawford, fresh off the 6th Man of the Year award he received earlier in the evening, got into the lane but somehow missed his layup off the front iron, the kind of miss that seemed a microcosm of another night of struggles (4/18 fg).
Jennings and Salmons added three free throws to bring the Bucks to within a point at 82-81, and then the game really turned. Kurt Thomas slid in front of a driving Johnson to draw JJ's sixth foul with 2:15 left, and Ilyasova got free inside to give the Bucks their first lead with less than two minutes remaining. The Hawks looked a bit lost with the ice-cold Crawford now their go-to guy, and a mystifying three-point brick from Josh Smith only underscored the Hawks' disarray. Horford gathered the rebound but couldn't put a contested shot past Thomas, setting up perhaps the Bucks' biggest shot of the night.
Jennings drove left and rushed a floater that barely caught rim, but Ersan Ilyasova (7 pts, 7 rebs) rushed in to grab the rebound and whip the ball into the right corner for Delfino, who up until that point was struggling through a forgettable 1/6 shooting night. Bibby moved over to let Delfino know he was there, but after considering a pass back to reset, Carlitos did what (realistically) he probably shouldn't have done. Perhaps not sure if the shot clock had been reset, Delfino said screw it and launched a three over Bibby. And, thank God, he buried it, capping a 13-0 run that Atlanta simply couldn't recover from.
John Salmons: 45 min, 19 pts, 6/17 fg, 2/3 threes, 5/6 ft, 6 reb, 5 ast, 2 to, 1 stl, 1 blk
A rough night shooting the ball didn't prevent Salmons from doing a bit of everything. He played excellent defense on Johnson (6/16, 13 pts), initiated most of the Bucks' offense with his driving game (5 ast), and scored eight in the fourth to help the Bucks make their comeback. Jennings is the more charismatic showman, but Salmons was again the engine room of the Bucks' offense, which for all their struggles ended up slightly above average from an efficiency perspective (106.5 pts/100). Milwaukee might not have a real star, but Salmons frequently plays one on TV, doesn't he?
Luke Ridnour: 18 min, 15 pts, 5/7 fg, 1/1 threes, 5/5 ft, 2 reb, 1 ast, 4 stl, 1 to
All the talk will be about Jennings, but it was Ridnour who was just as important in the game's final three quarters. He scored nine in the final 13 minutes, and he also helped on defense (!) by picking up four steals, including three in the first half when Atlanta was trying to run the Bucks out of the building.
Brandon Jennings: 43 min, 8/20 fg, 2/7 threes, 7/8 ft, 4 reb, 3 ast, 2 to, 1 stl, 1 blk
Jennings started the game on fire, ripping his first five shots and scoring 12 straight Bucks points midway through the first. He finished the period with 14 but went a bit cold from there on out, hitting just 3/15 including only 1/8 to close the game. Unlike game one, Skiles didn't give him a second of rest in the second half, and while it didn't help his shot-making he was clutch from the stripe, calmly hitting all four of his free throws in the final 18 seconds.
15. The Bucks again got the best of the Hawks at the free throw line (+10 makes overall) and had an incredible 15-0 scoring differential at the line in the fourth.
6. Joe Johnson has fouled out of three games in his regular season career (699 games), none in the last two years. So no one would have predicted the Hawks' leader and number one crunchtime option would be condemned to watching the game's final 2:15 from the bench. The Hawks were still up a point when Johnson plowed over Thomas for an offensive foul, but six straight points immediately after JJ's dismissal sent the Bucks on their way--and had the Hawks looking completely lost offensively.
1. Amazingly, the Bucks need just one win to book a date with the Magic in the second round. By the way, I had to think about that for a moment because I really hadn't thought about what would happen if the Bucks, you know, actually won the series. Dare to dream, people.
Clutch. "If the deficit were any bigger I’d say it was over. Do-able, but very tough." That was my expert opinion in the game thread after the Bucks finished the third quarter down eight. Good thing I didn't say it was over. The funny part is that the Bucks didn't whittle away the Atlanta lead slowly over the course of the final period--maybe they were just lulling the Hawks to sleep? Well, whatever. The Bucks got huge plays of the hustle, skill, and concentration variety in the closing minutes, all while Atlanta looked completely shell-shocked. We had been waiting all series for a close game to test each team's late game mettle, and we finally got it. While Atlanta looked to be sorely missing Johnson in the final two minutes, take nothing away from the Bucks. Everyone on the court made big plays, perhaps none bigger than Delfino's corner triple to make it a two possession game with 75 seconds left.
Aggression. The Bucks really should be a one-dimensional jump-shooting team without Bogut, and it'd be easy to get discouraged with Atlanta blocking their shots left and right. But the Bucks just kept attacking tonight and saw their stubbornness rewarded with a massive edge at the free throw line in the fourth quarter.
Guards. Jennings, Salmons and Ridnour simply carried the Bucks with 59 of their 91 points. Before the series I questioned whether Skiles would be able to get away with his small double-PG look against a Hawks club that can go very big with Crawford and Johnson in the backcourt. But the Bucks hid their frequent size disadvantage well and good thing, too--Ridnour was huge with seven of his 15 in the final period.
Three No Bad
You think I'm going to find stuff to complain about tonight?