By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
Posted Apr 19 2010 10:23AM
Joe Smith couldn't help being a bit stunned at how comfortable Milwaukee Bucks rookie point guard Brandon Jennings made himself at Philips Arena Saturday night.
For a veteran like Smith, who was already in the NBA when many of his Atlanta Hawks teammates and most of the Bucks were still formulating their hoop dreams, seeing a rookie glide through a defense without so much as slight bump off course was a shock to his old school sensibilities.
Smith doesn't need a Hot Tub Time Machine to remember the way things are supposed to be done in the playoffs. Those lanes that open up to the basket for small guards are supposed to be closed with a solid lick from a bigger player the closer said guard gets to the basket.
When it didn't happen in the Hawks' Game 1 win, when Jennings dazzled with a game-high 34 points, Smith knew exactly what message he had to relay to his teammates for Game 2.
"It doesn't have to be anything dirty and it's certainly not anything personal," the 15-year veteran said. "It's business. And in this business, a good, clean hard foul is part of the game, especially in the playoffs.
"Southern hospitality is one thing, but we don't need to go overboard with it against this cat. He's too good for that. We can't just let him have his way out there."
Of course, the Hawks will have to catch Jennings first. He played the Road Runner to the Hawks' Wyle E. Coyote for three quarters in Game 1; he scored 25 points in the second and third quarters to keep the Bucks in a game that was on the brink of being a tip-to-buzzer blowout.
Hawks guard Joe Johnson stripped Jennings on back-to-back possessions late in the third quarter when they were still comfortably ahead by 16. But he didn't stay on Jennings the rest of the way and the Hawks' lead was down to seven minutes later.
"It's a tough call," Johnson said. "I switched off on him on and just decided I wasn't going to let him keep going through our defense. But it's hard to lock in on him if you're not guarding him from the start. He's so quick off the dribble that it's going to take a little time to adjust to that for anybody."
For his part, Jennings realized early on that he had no choice but to revert to the scoring machine he was five months ago. He dropped 55 points on the Golden State Warriors in November, when the Bucks last played without center Andrew Bogut, who will watch the playoffs in street clothes and a soft cast for busted right arm.
"I just feel like without having Andrew Bogut, I had to go back to the way the way I was early in the season being more aggressive trying to score. That's the only way we'll have a chance to win. Me, John (Salmons) and a couple of other guys are going to have to try and take the scoring load for us."
The Hawks are expecting as much. And that's why they are planning on adjusting their defensive focus in Game 2.
Stage fright for the rookie is already out of the question. "He was in many ways our most composed player early in the game," said Bucks coach Scott Skiles. "That bodes really well for him."
Said Jennings: "The intensity was a little higher, but I can't tell. I'm playing above my head this whole series. There's no pressure on us. All we have to do is play basketball."
So the Hawks will have to rely on alternative, and perhaps more physical methods.
"We didn't give him anything," Hawks forward Josh Smith said. "Give the man credit. He made plays. He was the aggressor and he got to the spots he wanted to on the floor. That's what good players do. What we can't do is let him get to those spots anymore. We have to make sure to take that away."
You can expect the Hawks to meet Jennings with bodies in the lane, should he decide to attack off the dribble again. Should Jennings decide to work from deep -- he was 4-for-6 from beyond the arc in Game 1 -- the Hawks will have to decide if it's wise to have Johnson expend the energy chasing him around the perimeter.
Do that, however, and the Hawks risk tampering with Johnson's effectiveness and energy on offense.
"We're going to have a plan in place and we'll work it until something changes," Johnson said, all but admitting he will lock in on Jennings to start Game 2 without actually saying it.
Jennings is also playing with supreme confidence, even if his team did not before halftime in Game 1. "I think we were a little nervous," he admitted. "We've got to come out with confidence."
Yet sending more than one defender his way is more respect than is necessary. A healthy Bogut wouldn't prompt many double teams from the Hawks, who pride themselves on versatility on defense that allows them to switch every screen.
"Obviously, you have to clean some things up after each and every game in a seven-game series," Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. "But you can't throw away what's worked for you all year. That's just not what you do."
Joe Smith knows what not to do. Jennings cannot be allowed to move around, unabated, on offense.
"It's just business," Smith said, "it's nothing personal."
Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA writer and columnist and author of NBA.com's Hang Time Blog. You can e-mail him here. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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