When Joe Johnson started putting it down in the fourth quarter, four straight buckets from 11-feet and in with none of them being very challenging for him and a different defender failing in each attempt to stop him, it felt like the same story as the last Hawks-Bucks game. Atlanta had a superstar and he’d carry them past the Bucks, who were playing them even otherwise. I wrote after the last game, “The difference between (John) Salmons and Joe Johnson was vivid in overtime…this is why teams are lining up to try and get a star this off-season, they want guys who can make the plays Johnson was making at the end of the game.”
To me, it seemed clear that having Johnson gave the Hawks an edge in late game situations. The Hawks had a go-to-guy and the Bucks didn’t.
And then all of a sudden John Salmons morphed into a go-to-guy before my very eyes.
He’d hit some big shots before, notably against Detroit, Sacramento and Denver, and Salmons has carried the Bucks offense for large stretches ever since he’s arrived, but he really outdid himself with his effort Monday night. Salmons answered four consecutive scores by Johnson from the 10:03 to 8:30 in the fourth quarter with five straight of his own over (roughly) the next minute and a half. Johnson had kept the Hawks up four when Salmons got started, and watched that lead turn into a three-point deficit by the time “The Fish” was done.
But before Salmons could lead the Bucks completely past the Hawks on Monday night, he and Johnson’s paths would cross again.
After a miss by Luke Ridnour with 33 seconds to go, the Bucks grabbed the offensive rebound and got it back out to Ridnour. Ridnour looked for Salmons just outside the three-point line at the top of the key, but found Johnson glued to him. It looked like Johnson was going to take charge and be the guy who tried to stop the scorching hot Salmons on the last possession of regulation.
But he held him and wouldn’t let go.
The clear foul was called and I was left a little curious. Had the Hawks such a desire for the ball in their hands at the end of the game that they were willing to put Salmons on the line for an easy two points? It sure seemed that way, though Coach Mike Woodson would later say he wasn’t sure what Johnson was thinking. Salmons hit the two shots and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute found a way to bother Joe Johnson enough to make him miss on his final attempt at a tie.
The Bucks had won and, unlike so many times before this year, it had a lot to do with their go-to-guy out-dueling his opponent. “The Fish” is certainly looking like a “Shark”.
Salmons took over in the fourth, scoring 16 of his 32 points (12-19 FG 3-6 3FG 5-5 FT) on a number of pull-up jumpers and attacks to the basket. At one point the Hawks switched Josh Smith onto him, and that had me worried. Smith had a considerable effect on the game as a weak side shot-blocker and is generally regarded as a good defender. But Salmons didn’t have much of a problem shaking Smith and then did a marvelous job of using his body as a shield at the rim. He drew the foul on Smith’s shot-block attempt and finishing for the and-one as he absorbed the contact. Later, Salmons got by him again and again drew the foul. He wasn’t able to finish on his second attempt, but driving into a shot-blocker like Smith and drawing a foul isn’t as easy as it seems.
- Coach Scott Skiles had hoped for a strong game out of Andrew Bogut after some struggles on the trip out West, but Bogut again had trouble against the Hawks. Al Horford really gets into him in the post and holds his ground well. With Smith roaming in the paint (all four of Smith’s blocks were off the weak side against Bogut) the Hawks don’t need to double the Bucks big man. Of Bogut, Bogut finished with just nine points (4-11 FG 1-2 FT) to go with 11 rebounds, Skiles had this to say after the game:
“Bouges (Bogut) has got to go strong to the basket. He’s had such a good year and one of the reasons he’s had so many big games is he catches it, he doesn’t mess around with it and he faces up and drives or goes quickly. The last several games he’s been really deliberate down there and moving away from the basket when he’s shooting his shot and Smith will gobble those up.”
- Brandon Jennings struggled against the Hawks for the second time this year and once again Luke Ridnour picked up the slack. Ridnour’s shot, appearing to be on the decline after a ‘back to normal’ February, was on again Monday night, as it’s been most of the season. Ridnour missed his final free-throw, something you don’t typically see him do, but shot the ball very well all night and controlled the game just as well. His 18 points (7-9 FG 3-3 3FG 1-2 FT) were his highest total since he had 27 in a loss to Toronto on January 22nd and his eight assists were the most he’d had in March. Even better, he had only one turnover. Not too shabby.
- The Hawks are a matchup nightmare for most teams and no different for the Bucks.
“They switch everything defensively,” said Coach Skiles. “We have to take better advantage of that. We were holding the ball too much instead of our normal good, crisp ball movement type game. We got to that in the fourth quarter, but we spent a large part of the game backing up Al Horford and keeping the ball on one side of the floor. That’s not our game. Nothing against our guards, but it isn’t that easy for them to drive by bigger people on the other team.”
It’s hard to say the Bucks did a poor job defensively on Joe Johnson in the fourth quarter, because I didn’t really think they did. But he had few problems posting up whoever was on him and getting good looks around the rim. It looked like Milwaukee was going out of its way to avoid fouling him, but still trying to challenge his shots. He obliged to the lack of contact and ended up scoring 27 points while shooting a high percentage (13-25 FG 1-2 3FG 0-1 FT). The Bucks avoided using Mbah a Moute on him very much until the last few possessions of the game. Earlier this season, many Bucks fans I spoke with couldn’t believe Mbah a Moute wasn’t on Kobe Bryant for the last play of the Bucks-Lakers game in Milwaukee. I asked Coach Skiles about it then, if he thought about bringing in Mbah a Moute after a lengthy absence from the game and this is what he had to say: “Not really. He was out too long. I thought about it, yeah, but he was out quite a while.”
Well something has changed from then to now, because after sitting out the last 17 minutes, Mbah a Moute returned into the game with a minute left Monday night and kept Johnson scoreless on his last two possessions. Mbah a Moute will never take much credit for his defense, he always credits the team and everyone else before himself, but he seemed to be feeling pretty good about his effort at the end of the game Monday:
I just go out there and do what I do best, play defense. I just try to make it tough for them and it worked for us. My size always helps me out when I’m going against guards or wing players.
- Chalk it up to the law of averages or better defense, but the Hawks were unable to maintain their blistering shooting pace in the second half. After the first half, the Hawks sat at 57.9% (22-38) shooting overall and 62.5% (5-8) from three-point range. In the second half they cooled to 47.5% (19-40) from the field and just 22.2% (2-9) from deep.
- Jamal Crawford truly was “The Difference” in the first half, scoring 17 points, but he could only manage four in the second stanza, further burning the notion that he’s extra streaky into my head. I was starting to buy into him too, especially after a sweet behind the back finger roll on a break over Ridnour in the second quarter.
Another comeback victory and more walls knocked down. If this is a first round playoff matchup, sign me up, because this was a fun one.
I’m always trying to figure out how this team wins games and what certain things need to happen, but it’s getting to the point where they’re winning just because they’re good. Good teams don’t need certain factors to play out the same way in each game; they can adapt to the circumstances as they present themselves and figure out solutions. They have multiple players stepping up when need be. And they have a go-to-guy.
The Bucks are certainly looking like a good team to me.