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

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Thomas, Gadzuric key Bucks win

Left for dead by many (including this long-time, pessimistic fan) after the loss of Andrew Bogut, the Bucks beat the Hawks again last night to tie the series at 2-2.

Brandon Jennings played very well (23-4-6, 56% shooting), and John Salmons continued his steady play (22 points). I’m tempted to credit Carlos Defino’s 22 points (on 6-of-8 from 3PT) as the difference in the game, but it was the play of Milwaukee’s centers that put the Bucks over the top. Kurt Thomas and Dan Gadzuric combined for 16 points, 14 rebounds, two blocks and a steal, which looks like a typical line that Bogut was posting late in the season. The much-maligned Gadzuric played big late in the third and early in the fourth, and eventually gave way to Thomas, who drew a couple of crucial fouls in the final minutes of the game.

But back to Delfino for a moment. We’ve come to expect big games out of Jennings and Salmons, but Delfino had averaged just 6.0 points in the series, so his big night was something of a surprise. Here’s a look (and be sure to check out the dunk at the 0:13 mark):

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How John Hammond has made the Bucks better

Bill Simmons did a running diary of the Hawks/Bucks and Thunder/Spurs games last night. Here’s what he had to say about Bucks GM John Hammond…

9:30: Johnson posts up Salmons for two, followed by Carlos Delfino (21 points) draining a 3. Bucks GM John Hammond made three great moves in the past year: The Salmons trade; gambling on Brandon Jennings at No. 10; and signing Delfino for nothing last summer. (Not only does Delfino fill up the stat sheet, play both swing spots and give you solid D, but he has a giant tattoo of a lizard on his left shoulder that looks cool in HD. There’s a lot to like.) Meanwhile, Joe Dumars ran the Pistons into the ground in the 18 months after Hammond bolted Detroit for Milwaukee. Were the two events related? Hmmmmmm.

Hammond also signed Ersan Ilyasova, who first played for the Bucks during a rough 2006-07 season when he was just 19. After a couple of years in Spain, Hammond brought him back and he has played well, averaging 10-6, 44% FG%, 35% 3PT, and playing hard-nosed defense. The signing made Richard Jefferson expendable, so Hammond traded him to the Spurs and ended up with Amir Johnson (from Detroit), whom he shipped to Toronto for Delfino, who is averaging 11-5-3 and is shooting 37% from long range, while playing tough defense on opposing wings.

I criticized the Jefferson trade at the time because I didn’t think that the Bucks got enough for him, but it turns out that with Ilyasova and Delfino, they did. Plus they’ll have significant cap space in the summer of 2011 with Jefferson and Michael Redd off the books. At that point, they’ll have six players under contract — Andrew Bogut, Brandon Jennings, Ilyasova, Delfino, Luc Mbah a Moute and Charlie Bell — and $25 million or more to spend. That’s a nice little nucleus, especially if they can keep Salmons at a reasonable price.

I also thought Hammond should have retained Ramon Sessions, but with Ridnour playing pretty well, he was expendable.

Hammond got off to a rough start in his first draft where he took Joe Alexander at #8, passing on Brook Lopez, Anthony Randolph, D.J. Augustin, Jerryd Bayless and Marreese Speights in the process. Passing on Lopez is somewhat understandable if you’re drafting for need (with Bogut already on the roster), but the team’s future would be even brighter if they had a forward like Randolph or Speights on the roster.

Regardless, Hammond bounced back with the Jennings pick and has made a number of savvy moves to get the Bucks to where they are now. Is Milwaukee a threat to make a Finals appearance? No, but the Bradley Center is hosting some good basketball now and to fans in Milwaukee, that’s all that matters. Hammond seems to understand how to manage a small-market team and has put the franchise in a good position for years to come. That’s all you can ask for out of your general manager.

How good are the Bucks?

On the heels of my feature about Andrew Bogut that I posted a couple of weeks ago, the Bucks have won five of six — and 10 of their last 11 — to rise to the #5 slot in the Eastern Conference. Even SLAM has taken notice, as evidenced by Colin Powers’ piece, “How good are the Bucks?

The biggest factor, though, in the Bucks upward trajectory has definitively been Andrew Bogut. I saw the Bucks play live a couple weeks ago at the Garden, and was really struck by Bogut’s play. First of all, he is a massive, massive human being, completely dwarfing any of the Knicks players as he dominated all the traffic in the paint. For the season, his intensity and commitment on the defensive end has jumped far beyond what we have seen in the past, manifest in his 2.5 blocks per game, nearly double his career average up until this point. Bogut’s strength as a one-on-one defender as well as his presence in the lane as a bulwark against perimeter players attacking the rim have been fundamental to Milwaukee’s greatly improved team defensive (they rank 10th in the League in FG% allowed at 45%). Meanwhile, Coach Skiles’ credentials as a gifted defensive coach has only been reinforced by Bogut’s transformation.

On the offensive end, Bogut has great hands and is very active around the bucket, comfortable finishing with both hands, apt at using the glass and shooting the jumphook in addition to knocking down an occasional J from 15 feet or so. Since his Utah days, he has always been a gifted passer, whether downlow or from the high post, and he has continued to display that ability this season. His name doesn’t often come up in discussing the best young big men in the NBA, but it should.

Granted, the Bucks have had a nice schedule of late, with wins at Detroit, Charlotte, at New York, New Orleans (w/o Chris Paul), at Indiana, at Miami (w/o D-Wade), a home-and-home against Washington, Cleveland (w/o LeBron), and last night’s win against the relatively healthy Boston Celtics. But still, winning 10 of 11 is impressive, and their sole setback was a four-point OT loss to a talented Atlanta Hawks team.

Bogut has been the key. The Aussie averaged 16-11 with 2.8 blocks in February, and is off to a 19-10-4.3 start in four games in March. Moreover, he’s hitting better than 54% from the field and is finding his groove at the free throw line. (He’s shooting 85% in March.) Credit should also go to John Salmons (19-3-3 since the trade) and Carlos Delfino (13-7-3, 40% 3PT in Feb & March), who have given the Bucks legitimate threats on the wing. And let’s not forget the 22-year-old Ersan Ilyasova (10-6, 35% from 3PT on the season) who has played well all year, whether he starts or not.

But back to Bogut. His post-All-Star play has me wondering if he’s making a run at an All-NBA nod despite being passed over for the All-Star Game. Dwight Howard is a shoe-in for 1st Team honors, but who is the second-best center in the league? Tim Duncan is considered a forward, so Amare Stoudemire seems like the next logical option, but his defense pales in comparison to Bogut’s. If the Bucks end up with 45+ wins and the #5 or #6 playoff spot in the East, it will be interesting to see if Bogut earns an All-NBA nod. He faces a steep climb seeing that he has to shrug off the unbelievably high expectations of being a former #1 overall pick and that he plays in a small market for a team that few seem to care about around the league.

But first things first — the Bucks need to keep up their fine play. The road gets a little tougher as they host a hot Utah team on Friday and face the Nuggets, Hawks, Heat, Grizzlies and Cavs before the month is out. There are very winnable games intermixed — the Clippers twice, the Pacers, the Kings and the Sixers — and there are just two back-to-backs remaining in March.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

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