By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
Posted Apr 14 2010 3:32PM
Hours before the Hawks' regular-season finale, Jamal Crawford couldn't help but laugh when asked which team he preferred to face in the first round of the playoffs.
When you wait 676 games, longer than any other active player, to sniff the playoffs, there is no wrong answer.
So while the Hawks and Bucks matchup might not seem like the sexiest series to some, Crawford can't wait to get started.
"Did you see the game we played against them [last week]?" the Hawks' sixth man said of his team's 104-96 win over the Bucks Monday night in Milwaukee. "That was one of the best games of the year. It was a playoff game. It was non-stop, back and forth action from both teams. That's what you see when two good teams lock up and get it on."
Crawford's first playoff appearance comes during a renaissance season, of sorts, for the Hawks and the league's best sixth man. They won 53 games, their best win total in 12 years, and Crawford is the heavy favorite to win the hardware as the league's top reserve.
Waiting for them is a scary Bucks team that played as well as any team in the league for a long stretch after the All-Star break. The Bucks will play with a rookie point guard (Brandon Jennings) and without their best player (center Andrew Bogut was lost for the season after breaking his hand and dislocating his elbow), and yet no one is willing to count out a team Scott Skiles brings to the party.
1. Do the Bucks really have a shot without Bogut? Yes. If their performance without him is any indication, they'll cause major headaches for a Hawks team they match up with everywhere else. If John Salmons goes off, things could get very interesting.
2. Are the Hawks truly an elite team? They have their skeptics, due mostly to their struggles against Cleveland and Orlando. But you don't win 53 games by accident. They are legit.
3. Is Jennings ready for the big stage? That's the same question folks asked on Draft night. Jennings didn't take long to answer then and he'll be ready again.
4. Who provides the sizzle in this series? Bucks veteran Jerry Stackhouse has the incentive, after working out with many of the Hawks during the offseason in Atlanta. He was ready for training camp but never received an invite.
5. Is this Joe Johnson's last flight with the Hawks? Not necessarily. This is an intriguing offseason for Johnson and Woodson, both free agents. Johnson has wisely stayed away from speculating. A deep playoff run makes coming back to the Hawks a much more appealing option.
Mike Bibby is the point guard, but his main role is to get the ball to Johnson or Crawford and find his sweet spot on the wing. The Hawks run their offense through their leading scorers at all times, which in defense of that deliberate approach produced 53 wins during the regular season.
The Hawks actually have better ball movement when they play inside-out, through Horford and Smith. They led the way in some of the Hawks' biggest wins of the season. But neither of them is polished enough to be fed the ball on the low block routinely.
Without Bogut available inside, the Bucks have to attack the Hawks off the dribble in an effort to speed up the game. They know the Hawks will switch on every screen on the defensive end, allowing Salmons, Jennings, Stackhouse, Carlos Delfino and Luke Ridnour to isolate bigger defenders and exploit mismatches and draw fouls on the Hawks' bigs.
The Bucks want to put up as many shots as possible, especially from beyond the 3-point line, and limit their turnovers to keep the Hawks from beating them in transition. They need to combat the Hawks' superior size and athleticism with a volume game that plays to their strengths on the wing and as shooters.
Johnson is always the Hawks' first option. But Crawford has matched him in the big shot category this season. They are both splendid off the dribble and both great shooters, making them dangerous from anywhere on the floor. Smith actually has two buzzer-beating game winners of his own this season.
Salmons doesn't have the All-Star credentials or the history of clutch shot-making of either Johnson or Crawford, but he's the Bucks' best bet in a tight game. He's fearless and capable of getting by you or beating you with a step-back jumper. Stackhouse has plenty of big game experience and won't hesitate to take a big shot.
This is the first time in 12 years that the Hawks have entered the playoffs as a clear-cut favorite in a first round series. Woodson must guard against any overconfidence. Crawford is making his first playoff appearance after a decade in the league and will be anxious to show everyone what they've been missing.
Skiles is a master at taking a team that appears to be an underdog and goading it into performing at a high level. The Bucks scrapped their way into the playoffs playing the way Skiles played (and coaches now) and he'll make sure they continue that feisty, in-your-face approach in this series.
The Bucks have to play above and beyond their means to beat the Hawks four times without Bogut. They'll be well prepared, no Skiles-coached team shows up any other way, but the Hawks are deeper, healthier and better. Hawks in six.
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