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Bucks vs. Hawks Preview: Playoff positioning at stake in Atlanta

The Bucks' quest to avoid the 8th seed in the East may well go through Atlanta, as Milwaukee will face the 5th seeded Hawks three times in the final month of the season.

Mike Zarrilli

2012/2013 NBA Season
(37-30, 21-12 home)
(34-32, 16-16 road)
March 20, 2013
Philips Arena | Atlanta, GA
6:30 CT
FS Wisconsin | 620 WTMJ
Probable Starters
Jeff Teague PG Brandon Jennings
Devin Harris SG Monta Ellis
Kyle Korver SF Marquis Daniels
Josh Smith PF Larry Sanders
Al Horford C Sam Dalembert (?)
2012/13 Advanced Stats
92.3 (13th) Pace 94.6 (4th)
104.7 (19th) ORtg 104.0 (20th)
104.1 (9th) DRtg 105.0 (11th)

On the Hawks: Peachtree Hoops / Hoopinion / Hawks Str8Talk / Atlanta Journal Constitution

Eastern Showdown. Atlanta took down the Bucks 103-102 in Milwaukee three weeks ago, just days after the Bucks didn't acquire Josh Smith at the deadline. J.J. Redick scored 16 points in his Milwaukee debut that night, but Devin Harris and Jeff Teague soundly outplayed Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis in a game that went down to the wire. Following an Ellis bucket to put the Bucks up 102-101, Al Horford went right at Larry Sanders for the game's decisive basket with six seconds remaining, as Ellis' buzzer-beating runner caromed out at the horn. Making the loss all the more agonizing: the Bucks had a 10-point lead with six minutes remaining. Call it the inverse of the Magic game in which the Bucks deserved to lose for 42 minutes and only pulled things together in the final six.

Injuries. Sounds like the Bucks will be shorthanded at the forward spots once again:

Jim Boylan's decision to go big against Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge and J.J. Hickson worked out fairly well, as Sam Dalembert started in Ilyasova's place and provided some early offensive juice on his way to 16 points (8/14 fg). But against the smaller Hawks he could opt to go with someone more mobile (read: Ekpe Udoh). If he sticks with Sanders and Dalembert you'd expect to see Sanders match up with Smith and Dalembert against Horford, while going with Udoh would give the Bucks more flexibility to switch on Smith and Horford.

As for Mbah a Moute's absence, we've seen Marquis Daniels deputizing in his place as the team's designated wing stopper, though Kyle Korver isn't the same sort of defensive challenge as Nicolas Batum. I'm tempted to suggest starting Mike Dunleavy to keep one shooter on the floor at all times (Redick off the bench), but the advantage of Daniels is that he can switch onto either of the Hawks' guards as well. Korver's perimeter tendencies also make it easier to run Jennings, Redick and Ellis together, though the trio was outscored by six points down the stretch the last time these teams met. In 113 minutes to date, the three-guard lineup has scored a ton (118.1 pts/100 possessions) but also hemorrhaged points on the defensive end (119.5).

Joshin'. Will the Bucks make a run at Smith in free agency this summer? Milwaukee's pursuit of Smith up to the trade deadline certainly suggests the Bucks have long-term interest in the 27-year-old high-flyer, and if Monta Ellis opts out of the $11 million final year of his contract there would certainly be scenarios where the Bucks could offer Smith a rather fat contract (though his interest in MKE could also be predicated on his friend Ellis staying).

For now he's just another good player on a team the Bucks would love to catch in the Eastern playoff standings, but many Bucks fans will no doubt be watching the remaining games with Atlanta with an eye on what Smith does and how that might fit into the Bucks' lineup next season. Perhaps the most obvious question is how Smith would fit into the Milwaukee rotation given a) he's mostly been a power forward and b) the Bucks already have Ersan Ilyasova, who's both playing very well and locked into a rather reasonable long-term contract. One solution might be to view Smith as a possible solution at small forward, where he also gets a fair bit of minutes and where the Bucks have a far more obvious long-term hole. In an excellent interview with Smith over at Peachtree Hoops, Smith talks about his game and (among other things) how he views playing at the 3.

I'm more in the corners when I play the three. It's kind of like, you have to gauge what you have to do to be successful for the ballclub. When I'm at the three I try to slash a little bit and get some easy buckets in the paint, which opens up my perimeter game. If I have to knock down the open three point basket I try to shoot it with confidence. When you're playing at the three you're going to have possessions where it's going to call for you to take the open shot. You have to be able to space the floor and not clog it up for everyone else.

The obvious problem with Smith at the 3: it means a lot more jump-shooting from a guy whose biggest weakness has always been precisely that. Though utterly unstoppable at the rim (77% shooting!), Smith has shot over 400 times outside 16 feet while converting just 31% of his attempts. So while as fun as it might be to see Smith throwing down dunks in a Bucks uniform--and it's probably a long shot either way--I can't help but think he's not really a guy the Bucks should be throwing superstar money at. Call me a buzzkill.