Lang Breaks Down the Match-Ups
(From this week's edition of The Last Word with Lang Whitaker)
If the Hawks had drawn the Milwaukee Bucks as their first round Playoff opponent a couple of weeks ago, Id have been much more worried than I am this morning. Scared, even. Because there was a time when the Bucks were rolling. Fear the Deer became their catch phrase, as they went 11-4 in March and pushed themselves into a legitimate Playoff team. But then Andrew Bogut went down with a terrible-looking elbow injury, which not only affected their play, it seemed to deflate Milwaukees sails a bit.
Still, even without Bogut, the Bucks have gone 4-2. Unfortunately for them, one of those two losses was earlier this week at home against these Hawks, on a night where the Hawks just seemed to out-man them. If that game was the blueprint, this series is Atlantas to win.
Lets look at the probable match-ups.
POINT GUARD: The Bucks use a two-headed point guard. Brandon Jennings starts games and plays 30-plus minutes, but the Bucks close most games with Luke Ridnour, Sekou Smiths favorite player in the NBA, running the point. Similarly, the Hawks close most games with Jamal Crawford running the point. While Jennings will be the fastest player on the court whenever hes in the game, Bibby has the savvy to find open spots and get open looks; he just has to knock them down.
SHOOTING GUARD: Remember the Joe Johnson/John Salmons shootout a few weeks ago? Salmons has been great since going over to Milwaukee, and hes actually helped the Bucks lock down their defense. But he doesnt have the quickness to stay with Joe Johnson. Salmons is good, dont get me wrong, but hes no Joe. And Joe averaged 27.3 PPG against Milwaukee this season, the most he averaged against any team the Hawks played against three times.
SMALL FORWARD: A couple of weeks ago on NBA TV, I was there waxing poetic about the play of the Bucks of late, mentioning the acquisition of Salmons, and Kevin McHale rightly pointed out how well Carlos Delfino has played for the Bucks this season. CDs average 11 PPG and 5 RPG, and hes really been a nice player for the Bucks. Marvin Williams has struggled to be consistent this season, but hes also our best perimeter defender and, I think, hell be able to handle Delfino just fine. Even so, Ill be conservative and call this match-up even.
POWER FORWARD: The Bucks start Luc Mbah a Moute, who is an underrated and versatile defender. But the Hawks start Josh Smith, who narrowly missed being an All-Star and has played even better since that snub. Mbah a Moute is a particularly good perimeter defender, but Josh has the strength to handle him in the post.
CENTER: With Bogut out, the Bucks have turned to Kurt Thomas at center. The veterans veteran gets by on guile and positioning, and he knows how to get away with what he needs to get away with to be successful. But Al Horford is too much for him, and if the Hawks can get the Bucks in an up-and-down game, Thomas wont be able to keep up with Horford.
BENCH: The Bucks use their bench rather liberally, getting minutes from Ridnour, and from Ersan Ilyasova, Dan Gadzuric, and even Jerry Stackhouse, who functions as an older Jamal Crawford. Luckily, the Hawks have the current Jamal Crawford, whos about to run away with the Sixth Man of the Year award. Well also see doses of Mo Evans and Zaza Pachulia, both guys with plenty of Playoff experience and skill.
(Editor's Note: CLICK HERE to see Jake LeRoy's perspective from Bucks.com)
Ill sign off with this: I know this little scorecard looks like the Hawks should cruise to a series win, but if theres one thing Ive learned about the NBA Playoffs, its to expect the unexpected. Guys get hot, guys turn cold, teams coalesce. On the surface, the Hawks match-up very favorably against the Milwaukee Bucks.
And I think the Hawks will handle the Bucks. Just remember, its the Playoffs. Anything can happen.
Lang Whitaker is the executive editor of SLAM magazine and writes throughout the week at SLAMonline.com. Follow him on twitter at @langwhitaker. Also, catch Lang every Tuesday night at 6:00 p.m. on NBA TV's "The Beat." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Playoff Picture - from NBA.com