It would be difficult for things to be anymore clear right now.
After fattening up on the tired, the weak and the poor, the Bucks had quite a challenge in front of them Sunday evening. Awaiting them was the completely healthy, fourth best team in the East. After playing the Hornets without Chris Paul and the Heat without Dwyane Wade the Bucks would have to beat the Hawks with everyone to establish themselves as the favorites for a back-half playoff spot in the conference, perhaps even as high as the fifth seed.
But the Bucks just couldn’t get over the hump – and it actually made a lot of sense.
Mental mistakes and inexperience are to blame for the blown leads, first a seven point lead with 3:40 to go in regulation and then a five point lead with 3:17 left in overtime, but when things got tight, they kind of shook out as anyone would expect.
John Salmons has done wonders for the Bucks and has even had some big late game moments against the Pistons and Bobcats, but when the game is on the line and someone needs the ball, if John Salmons is the best option you have, you probably aren’t an upper echelon team. The difference between Salmons and Joe Johnson was vivid in overtime, when Salmons couldn’t convert on two tries with the Bucks down two with a half minute to go. On the other end, Johnson had been putting on a show, hitting fadeaways in the lane, a three from the corner and any other tough shot he was shooting.
I don’t mean to sound as if I’m ragging on Salmons, because his 32 points (11-20 FG 2-4 3FG 8-9 FT) had a lot to do with the Bucks being close. But 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. They want the piece of mind at the end of the game that is knowing you have the best player on the court. The Hawks had that Saturday.
Could the Bucks beat a team like the Hawks in their building? Probably, but it won’t be closed out in the final minutes of the game. The Bucks had their chances and may learn from the mistakes, grow from the experience and come out a better team for it. However, better team or not, their personnel doesn’t scream clutch playmaking and fourth quarter buzzer beater wins against top teams. If the Bucks want to beat the big boys in the East, they’d be well advised to get it done with time to spare. The past week has seen the Bucks bully teams missing their top players and teams that aren’t all that good, and that’s what you’d expect from a playoff team. The Bucks have the look of a playoff team, they just don’t quite have the look of a contender.
And at this stage in their development, that sounds about right.
Two wild cards in the Bucks last second shot game: can Andrew Bogut be relied upon in this role and is Brandon Jennings an option? Bogut got the call on the Bucks last possession of regulation and the results were ugly. Al Horford stuck with Bogut and made his shot very difficult, possibly even blocked it. It’s traditionally more difficult for a big man to get a look, especially one that is strictly back to the basket like Bogut, so I was surprised to see Coach Skiles go to him for the last shot, but it was probably worth a try.
Especially with Jennings out of the game. Jennings has gotten the call quite a bit this season for the Bucks with games on the line, but he watched this one from the sidelines after having his share of struggles against the Hawks. He’s the Buck with the most upside and the one most likely to become a reliable crunch time scorer, but he isn’t there yet and that’s been clear most of the season. For the purpose of development I may have liked to see him out there, but riding Bogut and Salmons down the stretch was the right move.
- I thought Jerry Stackhouse would need to have a big game for the Bucks and did he ever. For the second consecutive game, Stack had a season high, this time with 20 points (7-14 FG 0-2 3FG 6-6 FT). If you told me at the beginning of the season that the Bucks would get 32 points out of Salmons and 20 out of Stackhouse in a game with playoff implications against the Hawks in late February and I had some kind of guarantee that you were right, well, I’d assume you were some sort of gypsy to be honest with you. This scenario just seemed too far fetched.
- Back-to-backs have been a struggle for Bogut and he didn’t have his dominating stuff (5-11 FG 4-4 FT), but he did provide the presence we’re accustomed to on defense, with four blocks. The Hawks are a very good defensive team and Horford was better than I expected. He’s a tough guy and wouldn’t give position up to Bogut all night. This is the kind of game in which it’d be nice for Bogut to have a more reliable mid-range jumper. We’ve seen it a few times this year, but the next step is for Bogut to trust it and use it to his advantage.
- With Jennings struggling against a Hawks defense that threw Joe Johnson at him, Luke Ridnour responded with a December like game (6-8 FG 1-1 3 FG) and 13 points. Ridnour did a lot of things right, but had a costly turnover late in the game. Knowing Jennings’ penchant for holding onto the ball, one can only wonder if it would have been better to throw him into the fire down the stretch. I still think Skiles had it right.
The Hawks are tough to defend. I was watching the end of this one at a hotel, in the lobby and group had gathered. Johnson was raining jumpers and making plays and a patron was pleading for the Bucks to double team him every time he came down the court. But that’s the thing about the Hawks – they have four other guys that can beat you too.
If Johnson was doubled, Josh Smith would be more than happy to get an open look and go to the hoop. Jamal Crawford would like nothing more than to hit an open three and put a game away. The Hawks have options and they have a star. They’re tough to defend and defend tough. The more I write about the Hawks, the better I feel about the Bucks taking them to overtime in Atlanta.