NBA Playoff Recap - East First Round, Game 5
(6) Milwaukee 91, (3) Atlanta 87 - Bucks lead series, 3-2
Unexpectedly, the road team won a game in the Eastern Conference first-round series between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Atlanta Hawks.
Expectedly, an Atlanta team played with a profound lack of maturity... even though the degree of the Hawks' collapse had to shock even the most cynical and world-weary basketball observer.
It was really rather spectacular to watch the train wreck that unfolded Wednesday night at Philips Arena, where a stunned crowd of over 19,000 fans watched its hometown team melt down in fiery fashion. It's not a secret that Atlanta's hoopsters own a low basketball IQ and are short on mental toughness, but even this fourth-quarter disappearing act against a short-handed opponent had to leave the most guarded and cautious Hawks fans to stare in dumbfounded amazement.
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Here were the Hawks, cruising and up 2-0 in the series a week ago against a team that lacked its star center, Andrew Bogut. The Bucks and coach Scott Skiles had to go to war with ancient backup Kurt Thomas and sidekick Dan Gadzuric as their leading post performers. Every player on the Hawks - forwards and guards, on the low blocks or on the perimeter - should have been able to get to the rim with authoritativeness on a consistent basis. A guard-centric Milwaukee team should have been that much easier to defend, and the Bucks' Rookie of the Year candidate, Brandon Jennings, should have been taught a lesson or two about the rigors and challenges of playoff basketball.
Alas, Atlanta doesn't possess any teachers, a fact that was manifested in this grisly Game 5, a massive choke job by one of the NBA's most mentally fragile teams.
The Thomas-Gadzuric combo for Milwaukee had already accumulated a combined nine fouls (four for Thomas, five for Gadzuric) before the third quarter had ended. In the fourth period - which began with Atlanta leading by eight points (69-61) - the Hawks should have been able to get to the rim and the foul line at will. Instead, they settled for long jumpers, primarily from Jamal Crawford (4 of 18 from the field) and Josh Smith (3 of 8). It was Milwaukee who got to the charity stripe in the fourth period, and the plucky Bucks flourished as a result.
Down 82-73 with 4:10 left, it didn't appear that the undermanned sixth seed was going to be able to steal the roadie it needed in order to win the series, but with a relentless approach and a determination which far exceeded anything the Hawks brought to the table, the Bucks broke through. Milwaukee reeled off 14 straight points while the Hawks tentatively pushed a series of panicky shots into the air. On that 14-0 run, the visitors from Wisconsin made six foul shots. All told, the Bucks hit 10 free throws in the final four minutes while the Hawks didn't even attempt a single free throw. That development turned out to be the difference in the game on a night when Milwaukee finished with a plus-10 scoring margin at the foul line (23-13).
While the Bucks' main stars - Jennings and also John Salmons - answered the call with tough moves to the basket and clutch jumpers down the stretch, Atlanta's meal-ticket men were AWOL. Crawford's and Smith's troubles were already documented, but Joe Johnson had an even worse evening for Coach Mike Woodson's club. Johnson - about to become a free agent - lost a lot of money on the market in this Wednesday wipeout. He fouled out by committing an offensive foul with just over two minutes left. Players who claim to be superstars and want superstar money simply do not commit that kind of goof. Moreover, they don't finish with just 13 points against an opponent with a diminished defense.
Yes, the Atlanta Hawks - so weak between the ears despite their athleticism and talent - are now one game away from losing four straight and getting eliminated in the first round. If they don't show a considerable amount of pride and professionalism in Friday's Game 6, they'll see their season end... and their reputation will be impossible to rehabilitate in the offseason.
ProBasketball-fans.com Senior Staff Writer
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