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Hawks 95, Bucks 74: Improbable season ends with a whimper

Glass half full or glass half empty?

Looking just at the 48 minutes of basketball played on Sunday in Atlanta, even an optimist would admit the Bucks' glass looked almost completely empty after a second consecutive thrashing assured the end of their 2009/10 season.  In fact, an empty glass might be a bit generous application of the metaphor--a cup smashed to bits is probably more appropriate. 

Another big Hawks run, this time starting in the first rather than the third quarter, saw an encouraging 13-11 lead unravel into a 31-16 deficit early in the second quarter.  Yes, John Salmons and Carlos Delfino were containing Joe Johnson (4/14 fg, 8 pts, 6 reb, 4 ast), and Josh Smith was saddled with silly foul trouble.  But Al Horford was picking and popping, driving and dunking to 12 points in the game's first 15 minutes, and Jamal Crawford (22 pts on 16 shots) looked like the NBA's best sub for the second straight game, pick and rolling to 13 first half points. 

Meanwhile, the Bucks were overwhelmed on the boards (55-34 overall) and could muster nothing short of Brandon Jennings' acrobatics and Ersan Ilyasova's offensive rebounding in a first half that seemed significantly more lopsided than the Hawks' 53-40 halftime edge suggested.  Maybe the Hawks didn't land an early knockout punch, but the tone had clearly been set.

Atlanta had led 51-31 but seemed to take their foot off the gas pedal in the final minutes of the first half: Ilyasova and Primoz Brezec--yes, it had come to that--exchanged buckets before a Jennings drive and a late free throw by the rookie gave the Bucks some hope that they might be able to claw their way back into the game.  All told it could have been much worse, as Salmons had just six and Delfino, Ridnour and Stackhouse were still scoreless after 24 minutes.

Skiles started the second half with Ilyasova on for Mbah a Moute, but the move had little impact.  The Bucks worked the ball around for a corner three from Delfino to start the third--his only field goal of the game--cutting the Hawk lead to 10 and offering a slight glimmer of hope that another road win was at least possible.  But Jennings lost Bibby (15 points on 12 shots) on the ensuing possession, giving up a wide open three that Bibby calmly (and predictably) buried to put the Bucks back in their place.  Jennings would offer the final highlight of the game from a Milwaukee perspective shortly thereafter, stealing the ball out of the high post and then corkscrewing Bibby on the break with an around the back and reverse lay-up.  We've seen it before, but it never gets old.

And alas, that was pretty much it.  Atlanta played up to its potential for the second straight game, using its size and athleticism to generate their own scoring opportunities (shots in close + offensive rebounds = bad defense) and prevent the Bucks from managing much of any penetration.  They did particularly well against Salmons (5/18 fg, no free throws, 11 pts), who was offered precious little room to operate on the perimeter and continued his series-long struggle from the perimeter (4/23 threes).  Aside from an early drive past Horford (where he couldn't finish) and a late (and meaningless) drive and dunk, the Hawks defended Salmons exceptionally for the second straight game.

But as much as the Bucks' season ended with a thud--or a couple thuds, considering the combined performances of games six and seven--it's tough not to feel like we could be at the beginning of something special.  For the first time in quite a while, the Bucks have put themselves in a rather unusual position: their fans and the national media will actually be expecting something from them in 2010/11.  Whether they handle the role of up-and-comers as well as they handled the role of underdogs is a question for another day. 

And those glasses?  In the big picture they don't feel very empty at all.  So to Andrew, Brandon, Carlos, Charlie, Dan, Ersan, Jerry, John, Kurt, Luc, Luke, Michael (sure), Primoz (OK), and Royal (everybody!)...cheers.  We'll all be raising a glass to you tonight.

Three Bucks

Brandon Jennings: 41 min, 15 pts, 6/18 fg, 1/4 threes, 2/4 ft, 5 ast, 2 reb, 1 stl, 0 to
Jennings' fourth quarter strugggles (0/4, no points) coincided with the Bucks getting run out of the building for good, but through three quarters he seemed like the only Buck capable of making the Hawks defense break a sweat.  Despite an early fading three, he was quiet in the first but got the Bucks back into it in the second quarter with a number of aggressive takes to the hoop off P&R.  Though he was again blocked three times going to the hoop, Jennings overall shot 47% from two point range for the series and offered some hope that he might develop into a more confident attacker and finisher as a sophomore.

Luc Mbah a Moute: 22 min, 13 pts, 5/9 fg, 3/4 ft, 6 rebs, 1 to, 1 stl
The curious thing about Skiles' decision to bench Mbah a Moute to start the third?  Mbah a Moute had nothing to do with the Bucks' first quarter collapse.  He picked up his second foul with the Bucks up 13-11, then didn't return until Atlanta had run off 11 straight points.  Luc had a number of nice finishes around the hoop in finishing with 13 points on a tidy nine shots and his -2 rating was the best of any Bucks starter by a wide margin.

Ersan Ilyasova: 31 min, 13 pts, 4/11 fg, 0/2 threes, 5/5 ft, 11 reb, 1 ast, 1 stl
First, the bad.  Ilyasova didn't have a prayer on defense against Smith and Horford, and his complete lack of post game were exposed a couple times when he had mismatch opportunities against Mike Bibby. But he deserves mention as the only guy doing any work on the offensive glass, grabbing half of the Bucks' 12 offensive boards and scrapping his way to 13 points despite an off shooting night from the perimeter.

Three Numbers

17.  The Hawks were absolutely dominant on the glass.  Again.  Atlanta was a great offensive rebounding team all season and they were better than their season average in every game of this series.  The Bucks only narrowly grabbed more Hawk misses than Atlanta (22-17) and there's simply no way to compete when that's happening unless you absolutely shoot the lights out on the other end.  In other words, the Bucks were pretty much screwed.

33%. Expecting an NBA team to make a third of their shots isn't asking too much; even a terrible shooting team like the Bucks was well above that over the course of the season (43.6%, second worst in the league). But with two chances to win a playoff series the Bucks simply...choked.  They made just 33% of their field goals in both games six and seven, killing any chance of a first round upset.

Most to blame in game seven were the perimeter players: Salmons (5/18), Delfino (1/8), Ridnour (1/5), and Stackhouse (0/3) couldn't buy a jump shot and the Hawks shut down their driving as well.

20-3.   The Bucks avoided the third quarter embarrassment they suffered in game six--at 20-20, that was actually the only quarter they didn't lose in game seven.  But Atlanta outscored them by 17 over an eight minute period spanning the first and second quarters, creating a double-digit deficit the Bucks never recovered from.

Two Good

Ball control.  The Bucks turned it over just five times, though their horrible shooting more than made up for it.

Wait 'til next year.  Tough to feel too bad about one game when you put this game into the context of the whole season.  The Bucks excelled in the role of underdog all year, shattering all expectations and coping with the loss of Andrew Bogut as well as could be hoped. 

Bogut in uniform.  There were conflicting reports about why the big fella was sitting in warmups rather than a suit--Jim Paschke tweeted that Charlie Bell had been deactivated because of a missed meeting, while Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted it was because of a lineup error (which he since deleted).  Either way, there was something encouraging about seeing the big man on the bench in a shortsleeve Black Bucks shirt, a cast on his hand but no brace on his elbow.  Get well soon, Drew.

Three Bad

Boarded.  Atlanta grabbed nine of their first 16 misses despite the fact that Horford didn't have an offensive rebound until the fourth quarter.  Owing in part to their deficit in the size and athleticism departments, the Bucks allowed the rest of the Hawks far too many chances in the early going, energizing the guys on the floor and those who made it to Philips Arena.

Shooting woes.  Efficiency-wise, the Bucks' stinker in game six (81.0 pts/100) was their worst offensive performance since their 95-77 loss in L.A. on January 10 (80.5).  Today was slightly better thanks to their care of the ball and offensive rebounding, but it was still significantly worse than any of their previous 10 games before game six.  These kinds of struggles don't seem that crazy when you look at the Bucks' personnel without Bogut, but the reality is that the Bucks had shown they could score without Bogut. 

Offseason questions. It's still a great time to be a Bucks fan, but John Hammond and company still have a summer of work to do.  Salmons, Ridnour, Thomas, and Stackhouse will need to be re-signed or replaced, three draft picks will need to yield at least one rotation player, and the Bucks will have to decide if they want to spend MLE money this year or save it for bigger cap room in 2011.  Perhaps most importantly, Bogut still has a long summer of rehab ahead of him.