Milwaukee – Remember the Hawks? Leading a playoff series 2-0 since 1970? They’re not leading anymore. They’re tied with a team minus its center. They’re tied and they’re reeling. They might still win this series, but there’s no longer a guarantee.
One misstep at Philips Arena and the East’s No. 3 seed will be relegated to the dustbin of playoff flops. Because we can’t really see these Hawks winning on the road in any round of any postseason, can we?
Give the Hawks a smidgen of credit. For a change, they made the home team work. They were down three after one quarter, down four at the half. They’d done what a road team needs to do: They’d given themselves a chance. Then they threw it away.
They threw it away in a wretched third quarter, in which the Milwaukee Bucks spread out the Hawks and sliced them to confetti. And let’s say it again: The Bucks have no center, and they have a rookie for a lead guard, and they have journeymen like Kurt Thomas and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Carlos Delfino not just in their rotation but in their starting five. And they’re now tied with the Hawks, who have …
Two All-Stars. A third guy who should have been an All-Star, and a fourth who’ll soon be named the NBA’s best sixth man.
But here’s your difference: The Bucks play in a way that maximizes every part and the Hawks, at least when outside the Perimeter, play in a way that minimizes their resources. Some of it is coaching — Milwaukee’s Scott Skiles has worked a nice series — but more of it is simply the nature of these Hawks.
They don’t like it when it gets messy. They don’t react well when the opponent spaces the floor and forces bigger men to guard quick guards. They do it anyway, but in the two games here they’ve done the switching thing so poorly that they’ve blown their chance to make quick work of a diminished opponent. They’re in a real fight now, and the Bucks believe they’re every bit a match for the presumed heavyweight.
Back to that third quarter: The Hawks came out of the dressing and yielded two quick layups to John Salmons. The Bucks would make seven layups in the period. This is in the playoffs, where the motto of every defense is supposed to be, “No layups.” But the Hawks kept allowing the smaller opponent driving lanes, and this is one team that knows how to find the open man when he’s cutting to the hoop.
A four-point halftime deficit became an 11-point hole in 12 minutes. The Bucks scored 31 points in the third quarter, making 12 of 19 shots. (It’s easy to shoot 63.2 percent when you’re shooting from two feet.)
The Hawks made it interesting in the fourth period, but this team should be beyond the point where we praise it for not quitting. The Hawks won 53 games this season. This is their third playoff run. They should be all grown up.
Alas, they’re not. They still do the silliest things. Josh Smith got into it with the officials early and was never himself. He scored 20 points, but they were jump-shot points, disjointed points. Al Hoford got two early fouls and finished with four baskets before fouling out. Mo Evans lifted the Hawks with his defense but shot them out of it at the other end. (He took seven shots, missing five.)
And Mike Woodson took the better players and again allowed the opponent to control the game. He got Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford and Mike Bibby going in tandem, and it didn’t matter. Because the Bucks are making the Hawks pay for deploying Bibby and Crawford, neither of whom is a strong defender, and those mismatches out front have leveled what seemed a lopsided series.
Yes, the Hawks can still win. Yes, they should still win. But they’re facing another trip to Josh Smith’s favorite city and their margin of error has been reduced to nothing, and there sits Orlando, already in Round 2.
This is not the way a grown-up team handles Round 1. If the Hawks don’t grow up fast, they might not see Round 2.