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Bucks 79, Bulls 74: Ex-Bulls Salmons and Skiles deliver playoff berth for Milwaukee

Box Score

Remember the last night  the Bucks clinched a playoff berth?  There's no shame if you've forgotten the specific details--after all, it was four years ago--but there's something fitting about how it happened then and how it happened tonight.  

On April 15, 2006, the Bucks lost at home to the then-lowly Atlanta Hawks, but clinched a spot thanks to a Philadelphia loss the same night.  The fifth seed was still a possibility, but losing two of their last three would condemn the Bucks to the 8th seed and a quick exit in the first round. More importantly, the shoot-first, defend-last mindset of that Terry Stotts-led squad never seemed built for the long haul--and sure enough, a year later Stotts was gone and another trip to the lottery had been booked.        

Ninety miles south, the 05/06 Bulls were just a game better than the Bucks at 41-41, but there was something decidedly different about the way they finished the year: Chicago clinched their spot by throttling the eventual champion Heat by 24, part of a six game winning streak to close the year, and gave Miami all they could handle in the first round.  Superficially, the Bulls accomplished only slightly more than the Bucks, but you had a feeling that only one of the teams was truly on the upswing.  And while the Bucks slumped to just 28 wins the following season, the Bulls won 49 games and swept the defending champion Heat 4-0 in the first round.  Their coach?  Some guy named Scott Skiles.

Fast forward to 2010, and things have changed.  Namely, Skiles is now an employee of the Bucks.  So in many ways it's not at all surprising that In their first game since losing Andrew Bogut for the season, the Bucks made no excuses and simply took care of business, beating the Bulls and clinching at least the eighth seed with five games to go.  That's just how Skiles rolls, and this team is nothing if not a reflection of its head coach.  It also fittingly wasn't pretty, but you could say that about the Bucks even before they lost their best player.The Bucks can now worry about positioning, the good news being that they also moved back into the fifth spot in the East by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker they have over Miami.  

Early on it looked like the Bucks could be in for a repeat of the Heat game, as the Bulls killed them on the boards 16-5 early and closed the first quarter with a 12-0 run to take a 27-14 lead.   It's not that the Bucks' driving/dishing offense doesn't make sense, but they simply don't make shots consistently enough to be a good offensive team unless they happen to have a couple guys red hot from outside. As you might guess from the final score, that was not the case tonight.  And as we all know, Salmons is the only guy who can get to the line and/or create shots around the hoop, which means the Bogut-less Bucks are extremely vulnerable to dry spells offensively when their jump shots aren't falling.  

Fortunately, it didn't last.  As we've seen so often this year, the second unit gave the Bucks an immediate boost to start the second, as Ilyasova, Ridnour and Stackhouse all started splashing jumpers and helping the Bucks' defense force turnovers.  Brandon Jennings made an early triple and then went completely cold, but he was at least setting up teammates all over the court.  And Ilyasova even did his best Bogut impression, uncharacteristically rising to swat a Luol Deng shot at the rim.  The Bulls also got away from their bread and butter, with Rose taking just one shot (a long missed jumper) and turning it over three times as the Bulls made just three field goals and scored nine points in the entire quarter.  

The Bucks' surprise six-point halftime lead grew to 60-48 with five minutes left in the third, mainly just a product of the Bucks' jumpers falling and Chicago failing to apply much pressure on either end.  The lone exception was Joakim Noah, who swished in a pair of mid-range jumpers in addition to a running slam over Thomas and Ilyasova.  Still, the Bucks predictably had another cold streak in them--the only question was whether they could snap out of it in time.   

With Rose back in the fourth, the Bulls' P&R suddenly looked pretty good again--since the Bucks help but don't switch, Rose's penetration was constantly unbalancing the floor and leaving somebody open.  That also started to throw the Bucks off-balance, as evidenced by the Bulls scoring five layups in a 10-3 run that tied the score at 63.  But even after Hinrich got a rare jumper to fall to give the Bulls a lead, the Bucks didn't wilt under the pressure. Salmons drove and demanded a foul from Hinrich to tie the game before Jennings grabbed a long rebound and found Ilyasova leaking out for a dunk.  Following a Salmons pull-up, Delfino drilled a huge three with the shot clock running down to give the Bucks a five point lead.  Meanwhile, the Bulls had lost their early period momentum and seemed content to toss up jump shots--owing at least in part to the Bucks' tightening up their perimeter defense.  

After Miller beat Thomas down the court for a three-point play to trim the lead to two, KT atoned by pump-faking and putting the ball on the floor (really) to set up a short baseline jumper.  That gave the Bucks a four point lead, which then became six after Salmons blew by Deng baseline for a reverse lay-up with a minute left. I'd have kept Hinrich on him, but who am I to question Vinny Del Negro? Though the Bucks made just three of six freebies down the stretch, Rose mysteriously didn't touch the ball on Chicago's last two possessions: the Bucks forced Miller to travel with the Bulls down three and Hinrich took a contested long two with the Bucks up four and a couple seconds left.    

Three Bucks

John Salmons: 44 min, 26 pts, 8/19 fg, 3/6 threes, 7/8 ft, 3 reb, 3 ast, 0 to
You think Salmons enjoyed this one?  A month and a half after swapping his Bulls' red for Bucks' green, Salmons battled through some tough defense from Kirk Hinrich (less so Luol Deng) to score about one-third of the Bucks' points on a night when they were awfully tough to come by.  That was especially important in the fourth, as the Bulls went on a 12-3 run to take their first lead since the second quarter.  So Salmons did what only he can do for the Bucks: he put his head down, drove to the hoop and drew a couple free throws.  He also added a jumper and that big driving bucket on Deng to help seal it in the final minutes.

Ersan Ilyasova: 32 min, 17 pts, 7/14 fg, 1/5 threes, 2/2 ft, 7 reb, 1 blk, 2 to
Ersan scored nine in the second quarter as the Bucks made their big run to get back in the game and not surprisingly was Skiles' preferred four over Mbah a Moute, who played just 16 minutes.  Given Thomas' lack of offense, we'll probably see a lot of nights like this where Skiles can't afford to play Mbah a Moute as much for offensive reasons.  That's no problem on nights when Ersan has his jumper going (not so much from three tonight, but he was good from mid-range), but we have yet to see long spells of consistently from the Turkish Delight in recent months.  Now would be a good time to start.  

Kurt Thomas: 32 min, 4 pts, 2/8 fg, 14 reb, 2 ast, 1 blk 
Not a perfect first start, but it'll do.  Thomas was the Bucks' anchor on the glass, helping the Bucks overcome an early deficit on the boards  to even the final rebound totals 43-43 by the end of the night. 

Now for the bad.  Thomas' normally reliable mid-range jumper was off most of the night, which means there's virtually no chance he's going to score.  As you might expect, Thomas' lack of mobility was also exposed a couple times--notably Noah driving right past him for a huge flush in the third and then Miller (really?) beating him down the court for a layup and foul that brought the Bulls within two late in the fourth.  But all told it's really not that surprising he had a game-high +19 differential (while Dan Gadzuric was a game-worst -11).  For all his physical limitations, Thomas still thinks the game better than just about anyone and has a perfect grasp of what he can and can't do.  

Three Numbers

0.  No more worrying about magic numbers; by beating the Bulls, the Bucks reduced theirs from two to zero in the span of a couple hours.  Barring a complete disaster it was going to happen anyway, but after Bogut's injury I was already thinking the unthinkable.  Thankfully the Bucks put all that to rest.

36.4%.  I wish I had time to dig up the last time the Bucks won a game shooting this poorly.  Granted, a defensive squad like the Bucks are better equipped than most to scrape out a win on a night when shots aren't falling, but this is pretty damn bad.

+9.  One of the ways the Bucks offset their poor shooting was by doing something rather uncharacteristic--getting to the line more than their opponents.  Led by Salmons' 7/8 performance, the Bucks managed a totally mediocre 16/22 from the line but held the Bulls to just 7/11, including just one attempt in the entire fourth quarter.  Especially with their shot-blocker gone for the season, that's huge and says volumes about their ability to cut off penetration before it's too late.    

Three Good

D.  The Bulls (26th in offensive efficiency) are actually one of the few teams worse offensively than the Bucks (23rd), and they showed why tonight.  As dangerous as Rose can be when he's driving and kicking (or finishing himself), they just don't seem to have the shooters to take full advantage of it, and without a post presence (unless you count Deng?) there's just not too much color to the sets they run.  That meant the Bucks were less likely to be penalized for helping on penetration and they managed to do it all without fouling, either.    

Revenge.  Skiles had dropped his first three games in Chicago as coach of the Bucks, so finally winning in his old building was doubly satisfying.  While the Bulls are still just a game back of the Raps for the final playoff spot, there has to be something very sweet about blowing away all expectations for the season and clinching a playoff spot on your old team's home court.

On the other hand, Salmons didn't have to wait too long to remind the Bulls what they're missing.  Sure, things weren't working out this year for Salmons in Chicago, but it couldn't have been fun for Bulls fan to watch Hinrich fire blanks all night (4/16) while the guy they gave away was carrying their rivals from the north.

Playoffs done right.  It's great to get in, but also great to do it the right way.  None of this backing in by hoping other teams lose garbage--the Bucks had a chance to get it over with and they got it done, Andrew Bogut injury be damned.   Still more work to be done, but this season is already a huge success.

Three No Bad

I could go on about the offense's issues, but there will be plenty of time for that over the next few weeks.  For now let's just appreciate that a playoff spot has been clinched--regardless of what happens from here on out, that alone is a massive testament to the hard work of Skiles, his coaching staff, the front office, and of course the players.  On a personal note, it's been a very long time since I felt proud to be a Bucks fan, and while I'm not sure if that's a reasonable emotion to feel about a team in the first place, that's exactly where I am right now.   Well done guys.