Going down 0-2 in a playoff series isn’t necessarily a death sentence, but having to win four of five is never a situation a coach wants to find his squad in.
That’s exactly what Milwaukee’s Scott Skiles faced 1 week ago, and it wasn’t looking too cheery before then either. Not only did the Bucks lose center Andrew Bogut, their best player and defensive stopper, but they were squaring off with the third-seeded Hawks, who posted an intimidating 34-7 mark at home and went 7-3 down the stretch, including wins over the Lakers and Cavaliers.
The first two games in this series, in Atlanta, went according to form: the Hawks went up early because they have more talent and then rode out the fourth quarters to wins that were even easier than the 10-point win margins indicated. Milwaukee tried to steal one of those two games by tossing up tons of triples, something they did during the regular season (sixth-most threes in the league, which is really good when you consider that the Bucks play at a measured pace). Instead they clanked 34 of 44 attempts from downtown and were on their way home for Game Three in a 0-2 hole.
Everyone figured the Bucks had stopped there (including me). Maybe they’d pull out an emotional Game Three in front of a crowd starved for postseason action, but no one outside of Wisconsin expected what happened next.
Milwaukee came out smoking hot at the Bradley Center in the third game, building a 17-point lead by the end of the first quarter behind stellar three-point shooting (10-23 for the game), cruising to a 107-89 blowout. Good for them, most pundits felt, and then they showed in Game Four that they could also grind it out for an entire contest in winning 111-104. This time, they did it without ever holding a big lead, but again nailing the triples that eluded them in the first two games (7 for 18, 39%).
Game Five back in Atlanta turned out to be a true beauty. With four minutes left, the Hawks were sitting on a comfortable 82-73 lead, looking to make the NBA universe right again by taking back the series’ momentum as the healthy higher seed. Instead the Bucks went into attack mode in a big-time way, nailing a couple threes, driving like crazy to get to the line (9-12 on free throws in the last four minutes), and stopping the Hawks cold, taking the game and the series lead with a 91-87 gem.
How the heck did the Bucks do it? How did they stop a series that looked like it could be a runaway train and actually take the a 3-2 lead while Bogut sits on the bench with a deformed right arm?
How the Bucks have turned the series around after the break…
First of all, the pace of this series works right into a lower seed’s hands. Both squads played slower than the league during the regular season (league average was 92.7 possessions per game; the Bucks were at 91.7 and the Hawks were at 90.1), and they’ve consistently kept all five games between 85 and 86 possessions, a pace that would rank as the slowest in the entire NBA.
Less possessions help a team with less talent because just a few important possessions can alter what happens. Who would you rather bet your life on: the Cavs to beat the Timberwolves in a first-to-150 game, or the Cavs to win it if it’s only going to 2? Anything can happen in a few possessions, but the more you have, the more likely it is the better team’s talent wins out. The Bucks are hurt and have less talent; slower games give them a better chance to win.
Second, the Hawks don’t play much of an inside game, which helps a Bucks’ squad that’s missing Bogut, their major interior presence. Atlanta center Al Horford’s been hitting a consistent 55% of his shots, but he only took 43 through the first four games. The rest of the Hawks have seen their shooting percentages drop in this series, but not Horford. He should have the ball in his hands more, like he finally did in Game Five, going 11-21.
If Atlanta doesn’t continue to feed the one player large and strong enough to consistently get points against one of the top defensive squads in the league, they’ll be home well before Mother’s Day. Also, the Bucks have done an amazing job hitting the boards as a team, only getting outrebounded once in this series, 35-40 in Game One.
Third, Scott Skiles has been thoroughly outcoaching Mike Woodson. There’s a reason Skiles was second in voting for the Coach of the Year award this season and why Woodson has never placed above eighth. Remember that Woodson is the guy who lost a game by doing this.
Skiles is the guy who completely revamped Milwaukee’s defense in one year. Like I said above, Atlanta should have been going inside against a Bogut-less squad this entire series; they haven’t been. Skiles has spent the series switching defenders around to match who Atlanta has on thefloor and to alter the flow of the games, confusing the Atlanta offense which was shooting 51% in the first two games but only 43% since. Woodson hasn’t really made any defensive adjustments, allowing the Bucks to shoot 49% in their three wins.
Fourth, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute continues to prove that he’s one of the premier defenders in the NBA. None other than Kevin Durant called the second-year, second-round pick one of the best defenders he’s faced during the season. Mbah a Moute has been putting the kibosh on Joe Johnson, who has gotten points but only because he’s taking so many shots. He also spent some time on Al Horford in the pivotal Game Five, not to mention every player in between. He’s staying out of foul trouble and creating serious scoring issues for any Hawk Skiles needs to slow down.
Fifth, Bogut’s replacements at center are two defensive-minded bigs who can keep the Bucks’ brilliant defense running about the same as before. Kurt Thomas and Dan Gadzuric offer very little as far as scoring goes, but there’s a reason they’ve been in the league for a combined 23 seasons. Filling in for Bogut’s defense reasonably well in the series (including 12.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per), the pair have allowed the Bucks to stay in these low-scoring affairs with only two players scoring a respectable amount of points (Brandon Jennings and John Salmons – don’t even try to guess who their third-leading scorer is).
Best player hurt, rookie point guard, 0-2 deficit to a team that won 65% of its games. The Bucks were facing some long odds just 1 week ago. By playing their game—slow defensive battles—they’ve cornered the Hawks into a do-or-die situation, never a good one for a squad made up of many me-first scorers (the team hasn’t cracked 16 assists in any of their three losses).
Game 6 is tonight in Milwaukee.
Zachariah Blott cannot recommend Rick Telander’s “Heaven Is A Playground” enough.