Milwaukee 91, at Atlanta 87 (Bucks lead 3-2)
Pace: 87 possessions
Offensive Ratings: Bucks 105.2, Hawks 100.6
I'll say it. I'm shocked. Stunned even. If I feel that way about the fact that the Bucks lead Atlanta three games to two with the series going back to Milwaukee, just imagine how the Hawks must feel.
Wednesday's game was dramatic, but not particularly aesthetic. Atlanta barely averaged a point per possession and the Bucks weren't much better. However, the Hawks were doing just enough work off the offensive glass that it looked like they were going to be able to overcome their carelessness with the ball. Then Milwaukee became the aggressors down the stretch in a big way.
Josh Smith's jumper at the 4:09 mark put Atlanta up 82-73. They'd staved off a couple of Milwaukee runs and it looked like the Hawks were going to be able to protect their homecourt at Philips Arena. Bucks coach Scott Skiles called timeout and brought in Ersan Ilyasova for Luke Ridnour. From that moment, the Bucks reeled off 14 straight points and outscored Atlanta 18-5 for the duration of the game.
How'd they do it? Aggression. The Bucks drove the ball to the hoop over and over, shooting 12 free throws down the stretch and 18 overall in the final period. Atlanta committed 12 fouls in the quarter, four of them by Joe Johnson, who fouled out at the 2:15 mark by getting called for a charge against Milwaukee's Kurt Thomas. That left Atlanta without its go-to scorer down the stretch. The Hawks got just five points the rest of the way, three of them coming on a bank-in, straightaway three-pointer by center Al Horford.
The fourth quarter numbers were startling. Milwaukee outscored Atlanta 30-18. Atlanta did not shoot a free throw in the period; Milwaukee shot 18. The Hawks committed five turnovers in 20 possessions. Milwaukee did not commit a turnover. This all helped the Bucks dominate a period in which they shot 40 percent from the floor.
The Hawks got a terrific performance from underachieving forward Marvin Williams, who was much more assertive, scoring 22 points on 10 shots and not attempting a three-pointer. He posted a career playoff-high in points, as did Horford, who scored 25 points, but used 23 possessions to get there. Those solid showings were more than offset by Johnson's 13 points on 21 possessions. Also, the ugly side of Jamal Crawford's game reared its ugly head at the worst possible time for Atlanta. The prolific streak shooter went 4-of-18 in the game, scoring 11 points on 24 possessions used.
The lack of interior play by Milwaukee was a factor. We knew it would be given the absence of Andrew Bogut. Atlanta outscored Milwaukee 42-22 in the paint and held the Bucks to 11-of-32 shooting in that area. Yet Milwaukee was able to pressure the Hawks into 14 turnovers, this coming against an Atlanta team that took better care of the ball than any other team in the league during the regular season. In terms of play breakdown, the Hawks did a solid job of defending the now perimeter-oriented Bucks, but Milwaukee hit its share of open looks when they were presented, scoring 1.17 points per 29 spot-up opportunities. At the other end, the Hawks were effective in isolation, but settled for too many jumpers. On 21 spot-up possessions, the Hawks averaged just .76 points.
This has all unraveled amazingly fast for the Hawks, who appeared to take Milwaukee lightly when the series first left Atlanta, and now can't get the intensity back. It's almost like the Hawks feel like that if they are the championship contender that see themselves to be, then they shouldn't have to expend max effort to dispatch of the short-handed Bucks. That better change, or the series will end in Friday's game six at what promises to be a raucous Bradley Center.
at Denver 116, Utah 102 (Jazz 3-2)
Pace: 90 possessions
Offensive Ratings: Nuggets 128.2, Jazz 112.7
A little more balance, a little more defense and a little more ball movement. Add all these little things together, and you end up with a big win for Denver, extending its first-round series against Utah at least one more game.
Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony wanted more help from his teammates and he got it. Six players scored in double figures for Denver. Role players who stepped up included Arron Afflalo, who hit all five of his shots and scored 12 points, and J.R. Smith, who put up 17 points on 12 possessions. Chris Andersen's role was magnified by the first-half knee injury suffered by Denver center Nene. Anderson played 26:32, scoring 10 points and adding seven boards and three blocks. While we await the results of Nene's MRI today, it sounds like the worst case scenario may be in play: ACL tear. Even if it's not a tear, and we certainly hope itís not, Nene is likely done for the series. I'd anticipate Johan Petro to get the call at center in game six, as Adrian Dantley attempts to keep as many players in their current roles as possible.
After the game, Dantley cited Denver's improved ball movement as a key to the more balanced attack. The Nuggets' touches per minute total wasn't at the level of games one and two, but it was considerably higher than in games three and four. It couldn't have hurt the cause, as the Nuggets posted its best Offensive Rating (128.2) since the first game of the series (139.6).
After a tight first half, the Jazz led by two at the break. Denver became much more aggressive in the second half, going 23-of-29 from the line in the half, 16-of-20 in the fourth quarter and 33-of-42 in the game. Overall, the Nuggets posted their second-best foul-drawing rate in the series but, unlike game two, which Denver lost, they also shot the ball well from the floor. The Nuggets were 9-of-17 from three-point range and put up a .568 eFG%.
Lost in the offensive onslaught was a little bit better defensive performance from the Nuggets. Utah managed a 112.7 Offensive Rating, solid but its worst in the series. The Jazz's ball movement was as crisp as usual, but Utah didn't get to the line as much and had its worst shooting game of the series. Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer combined for 59 points, but used 53 possessions. Kyle Korver was 0-of-6 from the floor in 20 minutes. Was it just an off night, or were the Nuggets doing a better job defensively? We'll find out in Friday's game six, which should be a donnybrook.
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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