Where do the Hawks go from here?

After a pretty nice show of backbone in Game 6 and Game 7 of Atlanta’s first round series against the less talented but far gritter Bucks, the Hawks were absolutely drilled by the Magic. The Hawks lost the four games by an average of 25 points, including a 43-point loss in Game 1 and a 30-point loss (at home) in Game 3.

Why am I dwelling on the series? Because it’s a good indicator of just how far the Hawks still have to go to be true contenders in the East.

While it’s true that the franchise has increased its win total in each of the last six seasons, it just doesn’t seem like this team is anywhere near contention. Complicating matters, the Hawks’ most steady player, Joe Johnson, is an unrestricted free agent this summer.

Complicating matters further, Johnson has not endeared himself to Hawks fans over the past week or two. After a pretty nice first round (21-5-6) against Milwaukee, Johnson posted just 13-5-4 and shot under 30% against the Magic. That’s not the kind of performance that will convince a team to sign him to a max contract. Moreover, he’ll be 29 at the start of free agency, so one wonders if his best years are already behind him. He was outplayed by a 33-year-old Vince Carter, if that’s any indication.

Johnson is one of those players, not unlike Michael Redd a few years ago with the Bucks, who is not a “max” guy yet will command a maximum contract. I’ve said this over and over — just because a player is the best that a franchise has, it does not make him a franchise player.

The problem the Hawks face is that Johnson will be able to walk this summer with no compensation. He maybe willing to work out a sign-and-trade with his new team, but just like Chris Bosh, why would he agree to lower the talent level of his new team when he can sign with several teams outright?

Either way, between his performance against the Magic and his recently sour relationship with the fans, it does not seem like Johnson is long for Atlanta. Another issue is what to do with Mike Woodson, who has guided the team during its ascension.

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Hawks put away Bucks, 95-74

Milwaukee was cold from the field in Game 6 and that trend continued on Sunday, as the Bucks hit just 33% of their shots (an just 21% of their threes) in Game 7. The Bucks’ defense kept the game from getting out of hand, but without Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee had to hit its shots to keep it close.

Still, the Bucks trailed by just 12 early in the fourth quarter, but the Hawks buckled down and outscored Milwaukee 19-10 over the final ten minutes of the game. Joe Johnson struggled (4-of-14 from the field, 8 points), but the Hawks got good games from Jamal Crawford (22 points), Al Horford (16 points), Josh Smith (15 points) and Mike Bibby (15 points), who combined to shoot 25-of-43 (58%) from the field.

This series probably would have ended differently had Bogut been healthy, but give the Hawks credit for playing well with their proverbial backs against the wall. They played great defense in the last two games, and have all the tools to be a great defensive team. But Atlanta’s problem is focus. The Hawks have a tendency to vary their level of effort depending on the score of the game, and often come apart at the seams when the chips are down. They’re good, but they’re not good enough to turn it on and off whenever they want.

Do they have a chance against the Magic? Sure, but the Hawks are going to have to play an entire series the way they did in their four wins against the Bucks. Against the Bucks, if the Hawks played well, they’d win. That’s not necessarily the case against the Magic.

As for the Bucks, this was a disappointing end to a great season, but like Scott Skiles said in his “wired” segment before the game, when the team was sitting at 18-25 during the season, had anyone asked if they’d take an opportunity to play in a Game 7, they would have jumped on it. The fact that they pushed a far more talented Hawks team to seven games without Bogut is a moral victory.

Looking ahead to this summer, veterans Luke Ridnour, Kurt Thomas and Jerry Stackhouse are free agents. Ridnour played well enough this season to potentially earn a starting gig next season, though he’d likely struggle against the other starting-caliber point guards in the league. Thomas and Stackhouse may come back to give the Bucks a steady veteran presence off the bench, though GM John Hammond would be wise to keep the purse strings as tight as possible.

The big free agent decision may be John Salmons, who could opt out of the final year of the contract ($5.8 million). Despite posting 18-4-4 in the series against the Hawks, Salmons may have played himself out a few million dollars with a woeful shooting performance (8-of-31, 26%) in Game 6 and Game 7, when the Bucks needed him most. Salmons turns 31 in December, so the Bucks should proceed with caution. I can see a three-year deal worth $21-$24 million, but Milwaukee shouldn’t break the bank trying to re-sign him.

From Salmons’ point of view, he should give the Bucks a hometown discount, because he wouldn’t even be in the position to sign a lucrative new deal this summer if Hammond hadn’t traded for him at the deadline and Skiles hadn’t given him the freedom to be the Bucks’ main scorer on the wing.

Milwaukee projects to have a ton of cap space next summer (2011), so assuming the deal lasts at least two years, whatever contract they sign Salmons to will cut into that projected cap space.


Photo from fOTOGLIF

Bucks stun Hawks, take 3-2 lead

After a Josh Smith jumper, Atlanta led by nine with 4:09 to play, and the Bucks’ chances were looking pretty grim. But Milwaukee went on a 14-0 run over the next three and a half minutes to take a five-point lead. The run was keyed by John Salmons (8 points) and Ersan Ilyasova, who made a couple of key saves that led to a Carlos Delfino three and an inside bucket for Ilyasova.

Also key was Joe Johnson’s sixth foul, which came on a drive to the basket with 2:15 to play. Kurt Thomas, who drew a couple of key fouls in Game 4, stepped in and took the charge, and the play forced the Hawks’ best player out of the game. They tried to go to Josh Smith and Jamal Crawford down the stretch, but they went a combined 0-for-5 in the final two minutes. Throw in the Bucks’ 10-for-12 stretch from the free throw line (including 4-for-4 from Brandon Jennings with under 0:20 to play), and it all adds up to a Milwaukee win.

Jennings led the Bucks with 25-4-3 and is now averaging 20-3-4 in the postseason. Salmons chipped in with 19 points and played excellent defense on Johnson (6-for-16, 13 points) all night. The Bucks have won three straight after Scott Skiles decided to put Salmons on Johnson and let his defensive specialist, Luc Mbah a Moute, cover Josh Smith, who killed Milwaukee in the first two games. Salmons has proven that he’s up to the challenge and it has completely turned this series on its head.

The Bucks now head back to the friendly confines of the Bradley Center on Friday night with a chance to close out the series. I fully expect a raucous Milwaukee crowd.


Photo from fOTOGLIF

Who will win the NBA Most Improved Player award?

When handicapping the NBA MIP award, I always like to look at the player’s original draft position. Here’s a table with the last 20 winners of the MIP award. Take a look:

Notice anything? Only one MIP winner in the last 16 years (Tracy McGrady) was drafted in the first 12 picks.

It appears that the voters don’t just look at overall improvement, they also take into account unexpected improvement.

Looking at TrueHoop’s list of MIP candidates that received more than one vote from a panel of voters, here are draft positions for each player: Kevin Durant (2), Andrew Bogut (1), Corey Brewer (7), Joakim Noah (9), Josh Smith (17), Russell Westbrook (4), Aaron Brooks (26), Anderson Varejao (30), Channing Frye (8), Al Horford (3), Andray Blatche (49) and Zach Randolph (19).

Can we safely cross Durant, Bogut, Noah, Westbrook, Frye and Horford off the list?

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Josh Smith buzzer-beating…dunk? [video]

How often do you see a game-winning dunk? Well, you’re about to…

I’m trying to figure out what the hell Orlando was doing on defense. It looked like J.J. Redick was covering Al Horford (?), while Dwight Howard was cheating over to help on Joe Johnson, who was being covered by Vince Carter. Over on the weak side, Jameer Nelson and Rashard Lewis were checking three guys — Smith, Mario West and Marvin Williams. When the shot went up, Smith and West went to the glass, and Lewis just turned and watched the shot. He needs to box out someone there, preferably the better athlete (Smith) who has a better shot of following Johnson’s miss.

It actually kind of reminded me of the NC State/Houston game back in 1983. The final play starts at about the 0:15 mark, and when the shot goes up, you can see Hakeem Olajuwon just turn and face the shot like Lewis did. That allowed Lorenzo Charles to swoop in on the baseline, catch the ball, and dunk it home for the win. Here’s a look:

What’s the lesson, kids?

BOX OUT!

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