The Bucks finished with their best season since the 2000-01 season, when Milwaukee won 52 games. It marked the franchises first winning record in seven years and first playoff birth in four years. Milwaukee fans are hoping the 12-game jump over last season is just the starting point in a franchise resurgence. The model for the kind of turnaround those fans are hoping for may be the Atlanta Hawks, who have improved from 13 to 53 wins during Mike Woodson's six season's on the bench by adding a few victories to their bottom line each season.
For the second straight season, the Hawks started like a house of fire before coming back to the pack a bit. Atlanta was the top-ranked team in NBAPET through November and was ranked third as late as Feb. 8. The Hawks gradually fell back after that, dropping to eighth in the season's final week. The Bucks spent the season vacillating between 13th and 21st, finishing at No. 14. The Hawks enter the postseason a little under the radar. Indeed, their rise to a three-seed had as much to do with the Celtics' decline as it did with Atlanta's improvements.
The berth for Milwaukee marks a return to the postseason for coach Scott Skiles, who last took a team to the playoffs in 2007, his second-to-last season in Chicago. That year, his Bulls knocked off Miami in the first round and took the Pistons to six games in the Eastern Conference semifinals. That's where Woodson's Hawks ended up last season. Atlanta was swept by Cleveland in the second round last spring. Anything short of an appearance in the conference finals will leave Hawks fans feeling like their team is running in place.
Milwaukee enters the postseason without its center, Andrew Bogut, who was the team's leader on both ends of the floor. Bogut injured his elbow and broke his hand in a nasty fall against the Suns two weeks ago. Without Bogut, the Bucks went 4-2 to finish the season. However, one of those losses was a 104-96 home loss to Atlanta in the next-to-last game of campaign. For the season, the Bucks went 6-7 when Bogut didn't play; 40-29 with him. The Hawks won two of three in the head-to-head matchups between the teams, with one of those wins coming in overtime at home on Feb. 28.
WHEN THE HAWKS HAVE THE BALL
Pace: 88.1 (27th NBA)
Atlanta's Offensive Rating: 114.1 (4th)
Milwaukee's Defensive Rating: 105.9 (3rd)
Since Atlanta had the fourth-best offense in the NBA this season and Milwaukee was the league's third-best team on the defensive end, this would seem to be the end of the floor to watch. During the regular season, the three games were all played at predictably slow paces, but the offenses dominated for both teams. The teams combined to average 1.18 points per possession all told when playing head-to-head. That's not surprising. The Bucks' physical, hands-on approach to defense relies on forcing turnovers and controlling the defensive glass. The Hawks ranked fifth in the league in offensive rebounding and no team was better at taking care of the ball. Atlanta's strengths on offense proved to more than offset Milwaukee's strengths on defense.
The Bucks were three points per 100 possessions worse in games Bogut missed. That doesn't bode well in their efforts against the Hawks' efficient attack. Joe Johnson averaged 27.3 points with a .561 True Shooting Percentage against Milwaukee and all of those games came after the Bucks acquired John Salmons from Chicago at the trade deadline to fill a gaping void at shooting guard. Jamal Crawford will have an interesting matchup against backup Milwaukee guard Luke Ridnour and will mitigate an advantage the Bucks have over most teams.
The Hawks do a great job of sharing the ball, especially now that power forward Josh Smith has disavowed the erratic ways of his past offensive arsenal. The Bucks will counter Smith with a combination of Luc Mbah a Moute and Ersan Ilyasova. In either case, it's a pick-your-poison proposition for Skiles. Mbah a Moute may be able to keep Smith under wraps on the defensive end, but on offense, he allows Smith to roam free for steals and blocks. With Ilyasova in the game, Milwaukee gives up a lot on the glass.
The Bucks do have excellent length and if they can contest shots without giving up too much in one-on-one isolations and keep the Hawks off the offensive glass, it will go a long way towards keeping them in the series. Unfortunately, the loss of Bogut likely leaves them one man short.
WHEN THE BUCKS HAVE THE BALL
Pace: 89.6 (20th NBA)
Milwaukee's Offensive Rating: 106.8 (23rd)
Atlanta's Defensive Rating: 109.3 (14th)
The Bucks played inside-out when their offense was at its best this season, but with Bogut out, that's not going to happen. They will have to guard against allowing their attack to devolve into a series of Brandon Jennings and/or Ridnour dribbling exhibitions. Outside shooting will be key, especially from Carlos Delfino and Ilyasova. Jennings and Ridnour will attempt to break down Atlanta's mediocre crew of perimeter defenders and create open looks from the outside. Skiles prefers to keep the action slow with his Bogut-less roster, so there will be more than a few ugly possessions which terminate with a desperation heave from Jennings.
Salmons must dominate his matchup against Johnson on the offensive end by driving the ball to the hoop. Jennings has to dominate his matchup with Mike Bibby period. If those things happen, then Ilyasova, Delfino and possibly even Jerry Stackhouse can load up from the three-point line. Just five teams took a larger portion of its shots from three-point range than Milwaukee, and its ability to knockdown a good percentage of treys will determine if they can produce enough points to hang with the Hawks.
It's really a shame that Milwaukee won't be entering its first postseason in a long time with its full roster. The Bucks will grind out a win or two, probably before the playoff-starved fans at the Bradley Center. However, without Bogut, it's tough to imagine them scoring enough to offset Atlanta's high-powered offense over the course of a full series.
Hawks in 6.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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