By John Hollinger
ATLANTA -- A play here… a play there. That may be all that separates the playoffs from the lottery for five teams in the Eastern Conference, a quintet that projects to finish within one game of each other according to this morning’s Playoff Odds.
So you’ll excuse Milwaukee coach Scott Skiles for lamenting a couple of particularly egregious mistakes in his team’s 106-102 overtime loss to Atlanta that allowed the Hawks to rally in the extra period. The Bucks had the ball and a five-point edge with 3:17 left when Luke Ridnour drove the basket and tried a wild over the head pass to the corner that Joe Johnson intercepted. At the other end, Ersan Ilyasova inexplicably crowded Josh Smith on the perimeter instead of backing off, and Smith breezed past for a lay-up that cut the lead to three.
That wasn’t the whole game, obviously, but once Johnson followed that sequence with three straight difficult contested jumpers and John Salmons misfired on two attempts to tie, the Bucks headed home with their first defeat in seven games.
“Just plays you can’t make if you want to beat a team of this quality,” said Skiles. “We went up five, and that’s when we have to be smarter than that. We made two or three mistakes that were really costly right there. Bang-bang plays -- we turn the ball over and then we inexplicably crowd Josh Smith and he drove by and laid the ball in.”
"It feels like we gave the game away," said Salmons.
The Bucks may lament the defeat, but they can walk way with a lot of positives. For the first time since Michael Redd went out for the season they have some legitimate perimeter scoring threats – Salmons scored 32 points and Jerry Stackhouse added 20 – which has helped ignite Milwaukee’s recent run. And to a man, the Hawks were impressed with Milwaukee’s toughness, physicality and effort.
In fact, Skiles might lament a questionable decision of his own making – choosing Andrew Bogut rather than Salmons for the final shot in regulation. Bogut went 1-on-1 against Al Horford and threw up a wild hook that never got close; fortunately for Milwaukee, the game went to overtime when Atlanta’s isolation play for Johnson at the buzzer also missed.
Despite the setback, however, Milwaukee remains in solid position to nab a surprise playoff berth, and could find itself seeded as high as fifth. There’s no shame in losing a road game to Atlanta in overtime – only seven teams have left this building victorious – and it continues a stretch of solid play that’s boosted the Bucks to the first page of the Power Rankings.
“It was a good trip, we came out with a lot of pop and got after it again,” said Skiles. “But it’s also disappointing. We were up five.”
He’ll quickly forget that disappointment if the Bucks manage to finish in the East’s top eight. If they finish one game out of the money, on the other hand, he’ll look back ruefully on the one that got away.