By Jake McCormick
Up 3-2 in their first round Eastern Conference series against the Atlanta Hawks and coming home after a stunning road win on Wednesday, the Milwaukee Bucks went into halftime with a 34-31 lead. It wasn’t pretty, but the Bucks had clipped the Hawks’ wings inside and were hitting shots when they were needed.
And then the third quarter happened, and the game continued its descent down the ranks of the ugly tree, hitting every branch on the way down as the Hawks forced a Game 7 with an 83-69 victory in front of a sold out Bradley Center.
“Even though we had a three point lead at halftime, we were out of sorts since the opening tip,” coach Scott Skiles said. “We weren’t as aggressive, standing around watching each other too much.”
Atlanta shot 38% from the field, but Milwaukee was not to be outdone in the bad shooting category, converting on only 32.9% of their shots. The Hawks also outrebounded the Bucks 51-42, including 15 offensive boards.
The biggest difference between these two teams during the Bucks’ three-game winning streak fell in the category of chemistry. The Hawks spent Games 3, 4, and 5 playing me-first basketball and failing to utilize their collective talents to overpower the Bucks.
But in Game 6, Atlanta finally realized that passing and ball movement can do more for an offense than individual statistics, and it translated into a solid defensive win sprinkled with enough offensive runs to keep themselves ahead.
MVP: Carlos Delfino
Carlos missed his first three of the evening, but found redemption in three straight triples to keep the Bucks’ offense from completely breaking down in the second quarter. Going 8-19 for 20 points and six rebounds, Delfino was the only offensive weapon the Bucks had all game, which surely is never a recipe for success.
Delfino has seemingly moved on from his early playoff slump and has gotten into a good rhythm shooting threes, but he can’t be the only consistent scorer for the Bucks if they want to move on to face Orlando.
LVP: Brandon Jennings, John Salmons
Jennings and Salmons combined to shoot 2-11 in the first half, but the Hawks’ defense deserves some credit for completely closing down Wisconsin Avenue. When a team’s top two scoring options go 6-28 from the field and 1-12 from three point land, it’s next to impossible to win against a team that already had the top four players on the floor.
“It’s (Jennings’) first time going through this and was the biggest game he’s ever played in,” Skiles said. “We’ll look at the tape and we’re going to see a ton of breakdowns out there, and some things we could’ve had under control.”
Best supporting role: Kurt Thomas
Thomas, as well as the rest of the Bucks’ defense, did a fairly good job holding down the fort inside, and led the team in rebounds and contributing 11 points. Thomas has proven his worth as a grizzled veteran by standing his ground against the more athletic Atlanta front court.
“We’re just scrambling out there, doing whatever it takes,” Thomas said. “We have to keep them guessing so they aren’t as aggressive. Tonight they played better than us but we give them credit for that and will go out and play better on Sunday.”
It was over when…Atlanta went on a third quarter 22-4 run
The Bucks managed to whittle the lead down to seven points with five minutes remaining in the game, but the Hawks managed to do what they couldn’t Wednesday on their home court: close out the game.
Atlanta turned on the defensive intensity and forced Milwaukee into midrange and long shots, resulting in a 7:57 scoring drought for the Bucks that effectively quieted the Bradley Center crowd.
Milwaukee’s lack of a true game-changer that can consistently get to the line and gain respect as a scorer was exposed to the max Friday night. If the Bucks have any hope of pulling out their biggest upset of the season on Sunday, they have to keep up the defensive intensity while taking better shots to reduce their midrange jumpers.
“They hit shots, we didn’t,” Kurt Thomas said. “We definitely could’ve had better shot selection and been a little more aggressive at times.”
Game 7. Enough said.
“We’re driving by them on occasion and have the opportunity to draw contact and we’re not doing it,” Skiles said. “We don’t have selfish players, and there’s no question that sometimes pressure narrows your vision and we’ve definitely fallen prey to that.”