Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Atlanta Hawks 104 Milwaukee Bucks 96




Team Poss Off Eff eFG% FT Rate OR% TO%
ATL 86.6
57.4 25.7
32.4 13.9
MIL 86.6 1.109 44.6

At the risk of jinxing matters (given my prediction record I prefer this judgment to the more straightforward explanation that I'm just wrong a lot), I couldn't help but watch last night's game through the prism of a potential seven-game playoff series...

If the Atlanta Hawks and the Milwaukee Bucks face each other in the first round of the playoffs (and last night's result makes that more likely) both teams have reasons for confidence and concern about that matchup. Atlanta's greatest reason* for confidence has to be the simple fact of beating Milwaukee in Milwaukee without Jamal Crawford. It's not unreasonable for Milwaukee to feel good about competing against the Hawks in Andrew Bogut's absence but, unlike Crawford, the Bucks, sadly, won't get Bogut back for the playoffs.

*The second greatest reason would be that the Hawks appear to take Milwaukee seriously and play hard against them. It's a long season, but another 30 minutes of game time (unrealistically spread out across all the close games they lost) worth of effort like they gave last night, and the Hawks might have gotten to 55 or 56 wins this season.

Kurt Thomas, playing in Bogut's stead, showed that he can still do three things: defend his man in the post, rebound on the defensive end, and set solid screens. The first ability could cause Atlanta problems if the Hawks insist on trying to post up Al Horford against Thomas. Milwaukee had no need to send a second defender to help Thomas. The Hawks never sent a second offensive player to help Horford, leaving the Atlanta center frustrated. As the game progressed and, presumably, the Hawks noticed how much more effective offensively Zaza Pachulia* was when he drew Thomas further away from the basket, Horford was utilized more often in pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop sets and was more successful.

*When Pachulia plays as well and as much as he did last night, it's really puts the lie to the idea that the Hawks need to spend money on another big man for the primary (eight-man) rotation. (They do need a fourth, and, ideally a fifth, big man that can play but both of those should be cheap with one preferrably being young and having some upside and/or potential trade value.) Pachulia is perfectly capable of backing up both post positions, thus providing some salve to the "Al Horford is really a power forward" crowd.

Neither team's backcourt looks especially capable of keeping the counterparts in front of them. Atlanta's guards* have the luxury of Josh Smith and Horford protecting them. It's here that Milwaukee's defense clearly misses the more mobile Bogut. Neither Luke Ridnour nor Brandon Jennings showed any confidence in their ability to finish at the rim no matter how many times they got there. Discretion here may be the better part of valor as Atlanta's guards, once beaten, tend to quit on the defensive possession rather than rotate out to shooters.

*That Jeff Teague played seven minutes in the second half (despite not playing especially well in his first half stint) and Mario West not at all is as tremendously encouraging as something concerning Atlanta's perimeter defense can be.

Brandon Jennings showed a somewhat similar disinclination to play defense off the ball, losing Mike Bibby repeatedly when caught either ball-watching or drifting to the ball (without actually double-teaming anyone or cutting off a passing lane) rather than monitoring where Bibby was spotting up for a three-pointer. If Jennings makes Bibby a proficient and efficient scorer, the Atlanta offense, already typically stout, will have found some free points.

The flip side of that is that is Jerry Stackhouse (small sample size alert) who has scored 20 Pts/36 (on 50 eFG%, 54.1 TS%) in three games against the Hawks this season while struggling to 14.3 Pts/36 (on 46.5 eFG%, 50.6 TS%) in 38 games against the rest of the league. Stackhouse's success against Atlanta is not entirely an indictment of Atlanta's perimeter defense. Scott Skiles has shown a willingness to go small against the Hawks, using either Stackhouse or Carlos Delfino at the 4. Stackhouse, diminished though his skills are by age, has been more effective than Delfino at creating useful space for himself when matched up against a bigger defender, typically Josh Smith.

That shouldn't be a big deal as Smith should receive the ball in the post essentailly every time he's not being guarded by Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Milwaukee will have to send a second defender to help any of Delfino, Stackhouse, or Ersan Ilyasova against Smith in the post. Mbah a Moute figures to be something of a wild card in this (potential) series. He's Milwaukee's best defensive option against both Smith and Joe Johnson. Obviously, he can't guard both simultaneously, plus, with the offensive dropoff between Kurt Thomas and Bogut, it makes it more difficult for the Bucks to function offensively with their best possible defensive frontcourt on the floor.

I suspect that Skiles will use Mbah a Moute on Smith most of the time and on Johnson only in late and close situations. I expect that means that Johnson will have both the opportunity and responsibility to carry Atlanta's half-court offense in this (potential) series. Given that he'll be guarded primarily* by John Salmons, he should be able to do so.

*and with little help defense supporting Salmons.

Now, on to the game itself...

Mike Woodson:
"Everything was solid from beginning to end."
Credit to the coach for letting Al Horford play from the 5:36 mark of the fourth quarter with five fouls.

Josh Smith:
"Even though they went on a run in the second half, we didn’t bend. We kept fighting. We kept with our game plan and used our advantages.

Mo played great, Zaza played big like we need him to. Everybody gave a good effort and that’s what we need to go deep in the playoffs."
Joe Johnson:
"I think the focus was a little different tonight considering that it’s a potential matchup in the playoffs. Knowing we had this game and one more left, we wanted to go out with a bang and go into the postseason with some momentum."
Al Horford on Jeff Teague:
"He can stay in front of Jennings and Ridnour and all of those guards. That works to our advantage."
Mike Woodson was also positive regarding Teague:
"Rook' controlled the game for a little bit. He made a few mistakes but a lot of that was guys not being ready for him delivering the ball."
Scott Skiles on Atlanta's D:
"They had their bigs switching on onto our smalls and taking advantage of that was difficult for us."
Milwaukee shot poorly, didn't rebound many of their misses, and didn't get tot he foul line often, but, because they turned the ball over just four times, their offensive efficiency surpassed both their season average and Atlanta's season average in defensive efficiency.

Skiles was less impressed with his own team's defense:
"We've got six quarters in a row now that we haven't had the defensive intensity we need. We started the game soft. That's a plus-50 win team and they're going to take advantage of that. As we always do, we tried to battle back. We just could never get any traction. Our goal was to be disruptive to them and we never got that done tonight."
Brandon Jennings on Josh Smith:
"When you've got Josh Smith on you, you'd think you can just take him to the rack, but he's a guy who can move and he's a great shot blocker. It's real tough. We were standing a lot on offense, not a lot of ball movement."
Alex Boeder at Brew Hoop is not optimistic about Milwaukee's chances in a playoff series against the Hawks:
Defensively, the Hawks are just too quick and too strong at every position, and they seamlessly switched their way to hound the Bucks on the perimeter, which is where they run just about all of their offense without Andrew Bogut on the floor. Offensively, Joe Johnson (31 points) hasn't met his defensive match, and they are pretty much nightly the type of balanced offensive dynamo that Milwaukee was only on its best days and at full strength.
Jeremy at Bucksketball fears that, in Bogut's absence, Milwaukee can't even take advantage of Mike Bibby:
If only the Bucks had a way to exploit any mismatches they did have on these switches. After all, Mike Bibby was on the court for 34 minutes, isn’t there a better way to attack him on the pick and roll. Ah, that’s where Bogut’s injury comes into play again. Sure, Kurt Thomas, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and Ersan Ilyasova are all much bigger than Bibby, but how often are any of them looking to back a guy down? The last time these teams met, I counted three separate occasions in which LRMAM either got the ball on a swing or grabbed an offensive rebound with Bibby on him and failed to attack. Without Bogut, there are very few easy shots for the Bucks.
At Soaring Down South, Kris Willis details Milwaukee's difficulties slowing Joe Johnson down:
The Bucks clearly have no answer for Joe Johnson. No one on their roster has shown the ability to even remotely slow him down. Johnson torched the Bucks for 31 points tonight on 12-19 shooting. Most of those came in the context of the Hawks offense. They weren’t forced and Joe was able to catch and shoot or take his defender off the dribble at will. I would be shocked if the Bucks continue to single cover Johnson if they do in fact match up in the playoffs. Teams run a bigger risk by committing a double team to Johnson with Jamal Crawford also on the court but the Bucks clearly can not slow Johnson down at all.


Unknown said...

Brett, did you notice Johnson's hustle last night? It seemed like he was grabbing rebounds and sprinting down the floor.

Bret LaGree said...

Definitely. That was a universal quality amongst the Hawks who played last night. Very encouraging.