Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Bucks are making this playoff thing pretty interesting

By now it is an obvious and exhausted line: Andrew Bogut’s presence would be and has been missed during the Milwaukee Bucks’ first round playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks. It was especially relevant in games one and two, as the Bucks were eaten alive in the paint and on the boards en route to a 0-2 series hole.

It is also relevant that, as they have done all season long, the Bucks have not stopped plugging away. The two losses in Atlanta saw Milwaukee get caught up in the flurries of fast break points, alley-oops and open threes the Hawks throw at you on their home floor, with the Bucks contributing to these onslaughts by shooting a few too many jump-shots and committing unforced turnovers, the kind that make head coach Scott Skiles look like an ax murderer on the sidelines. But the Bucks never ran into a corner and hid. They kept battling until their inability to stop Hawks’ runs ultimately became too much. The end result was a pair of ten-point losses.

So yeah, they were playing hard, they weren’t folding, but in the end they were still down 0-2. The Bucks had the look of a team that simply didn’t have enough punch to overcome their unlucky limitations; everything is harder than it should be without Bogut in the middle.

Now of course, after the two spirited series-tying wins in a loud, constantly-chanting Bradley Center, we are seeing that effort we’ve seen all year, along with the power of a significant home-court advantage, produce real results. More importantly, at least for the time being, one can stop thinking about what could have been accomplished with Bogut healthy and start looking at what is actually happening, ‘cause it’s pretty impressive.

One of the more significant reasons for this turnaround has been the play of the Andrew Bogut Stand-Ins, Kurt Thomas and Dan Gadzuric. In the first two games of the series, the duo combined to average a less-than-modest 5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. In Milwaukee their combined averages rose to 13 points and 18.5 rebounds per game, a much better compliment to Bogut’s missing regular season averages of 15.9 points and 10.2 rebounds per game.

There was even a sequence in game four when Gadzuric swatted a layup attempt into the first row and on the following possession ended the third quarter with a layup, sending the crowd into a state of What the Hell is Happening?-type excitement. The outside shooting from the supporting cast will come and go, especially on the road, but Danny G and Thomas will need to consistently chip-in for the Bucks to stick around.

On the other side, the Hawks’ well-documented road struggles have been an issue for a few years now, so it may be safe to assume it’s not going away, even though no one really understands why. Josh Smith and Al Horford are so active at home that when you watch them on the road it looks like the Mon-Stars from “Space Jam” came and stole their basketball powers. At least that would be a good excuse, I guess.

A player that doesn’t seem too affected by this home or away thing is Brandon Jennings. He lit up Atlanta for 34 points in game one and although he came back with only nine in game two, it seemed to be largely because he was trying to regain his hot hand from game one (he shot 3-for-15 from the field in game two) more than a lack of effort.

But in a way, Jennings’ 23 point performance in game four was more impressive to me than his 34. His three point hot streaks are ridiculous to watch, yes, but his game on Monday was so controlled within a team framework and so advantageous against the Hawks’ switch-on-every-screen defensive strategy; you could see he decided to attack Atlanta’s defense, and did so all night.

Plus he added this postgame quote, referring to his in-the-lane floater he has been using more and more: “That's just one of the best shots I have right now.”

This is excellent news. No Hawk can guard Jennings if he decides to turn the corner and attack the basket on those screens, and that will stay true in Atlanta or Milwaukee or wherever he played in Europe last year. So, since I’m sure you’re reading this Brandon, use the floater and keep getting into the lane; good things happen for everyone.

All the metaphors that typically describe an underdog team – gritty, scrappy, resilient – are overused, to be sure. But sorry, they pretty much describe Milwaukee right now. The shoe fits, if I can add one more cliché.

The Bucks have been playing with a decided ignorance in terms of the way this series was expected to play out. Matchup-wise and front-level talent-wise, Milwaukee should not be in a lengthy series with the Hawks, not this year.

But the Hawks’ energy does not always match their talents; they are not always concerned with every possession. And in these playoffs, the Bucks, with their shortcomings and short-handedness, always do, they have to. I’m not sure if that’s enough to win a series, but it’d be nice.

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