MILWAUKEE -- Mike Woodson employs a zone defense about as often as the Milwaukee Bucks draw sellout crowds.
In other words, not very often.
But there were the Atlanta Hawks spread out in a 1-2-2 formation in the third quarter of what can delicately be termed an offensively challenged game for both teams Friday night, and the tactical adjustment worked wonders.
Woodson estimated that he used a straight zone on about four or five possessions, although Bucks coach Scott Skiles thought the number was a little bit higher. But whatever the case, that zone contributed to a stretch in which the Bucks missed 12 consecutive shots and were on the wrong end of a 27-4 run to begin the second half.
What had been a three-point halftime deficit turned into a 20-point Hawks lead, 58-38, with 2:02 left in the third quarter -- silencing the Bucks' third sellout crowd of the postseason (they had only five sellouts in the regular season) -- and Atlanta withstood a mini-run by Milwaukee in the fourth quarter to win Game 6 83-69 and send the only remaining first-round Eastern Conference playoff series back to Atlanta for a Game 7 on Sunday afternoon.
"They gave a zone look, but they also go with movement, they're matching up, so they're not in a straight zone. And then sometimes they switch, so it only looks like [a zone]," said Skiles, who had mentioned in his pregame discussion with reporters how surprised the Bucks staff had been that Atlanta had not used a zone even once in the entire series.
So Milwaukee was expecting to see some zone in a game in which the Hawks were fighting for their postseason lives, and they worked on attacking the zone at practice Thursday.
Still, when it came, the Bucks couldn't score against it. For nearly eight minutes, they didn't have one single point.
Milwaukee finished just 7-for-26 from 3-point range and shot a shade under 33 percent overall, and Skiles was particularly perturbed by the fact that Milwaukee had 51 missed shots yet grabbed only eight offensive rebounds.
Milwaukee also settled for outside jumpers from players who shouldn't have been taking them (Dan Gadzuric and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute were the two primary offenders in that department), failed to attack the basket with any regularity, and didn't get any sustained offense from its two primary scorers, Brandon Jennings (1-for-7 entering the fourth) and John Salmons (2-for-10 after three quarters).
"They just outplayed us. We just didn't see people like we do when we're playing well, and they confused us quite a bit out there tonight," Skiles said. "When we go and look at the tape, we're going to see a ton of breakdowns."
Milwaukee held a 34-31 edge at intermission after a horror show of a half offensively from both teams, with Jennings (0-for-5) and Josh Smith (1-for-8 overall; 0-for-2 on the 3s he supposedly has stopped taking) the most egregious offenders.
The snail's pace of the scoring took a bit of life out of the crowd, but things still looked promising until the third quarter began.
"We were concerned as a staff at halftime seeing the looks on the players' faces, and guys weren't relaxed and comfortable and communicating like we usually do," Skiles said. "There were some blank stares out there."
Those blank stares became contagious, and there were 18,717 of them by the time the third period was 10 minutes old and the Hawks had turned this into a rout. Atlanta shot 11-for-21 in the period and forced six turnovers, with Al Horford doing the most damage with nine points, five rebounds and a block in the third quarter alone.
Milwaukee crept within seven with four minutes remaining, but Salmons and Carlos Delfino missed driving shots on the next two Bucks possessions, and Joe Johnson (22 points) nailed a jumper coming off a screen and Jamal Crawford (24 points) got isolated against Kurt Thomas on a switch, went left and blew past him for a bucket that pretty much iced it.
So the teams go into Game 7 having salvaged some first-round suspense for the Eastern Conference as a whole, even if they haven't put together the most aesthetically pleasing of competitions. No matter who wins, the victor seems destined to get pounded in the second round by the Magic (that series will begin Tuesday) if the regular season can be used as a guide: Orlando went 3-0 against Milwaukee and 3-1 against Atlanta, and the Magic will be coming off eight straight days of rest by the time Game 1 tips off.
"This was gut-check time for us, and this really defines what our team is about," Horford said.
Maybe so, but without that adjustment to a zone in the third quarter, that Hawks run might not have turned into such a barrage (Atlanta won the quarter 29-11 and scored 19 unanswered points in one spurt) and that Bucks comeback might have made this one as tight as Game 5 was for its final two minutes.
Aside from defensive tactics, one big question for Sunday will be who, individually, will show up offensively.
Despite his game-high 24 points, Crawford is shooting only 36 percent in this series, Johnson is making only 27 percent of his 3-pointers and the Hawks -- despite their substantial size advantage -- are grabbing only two more offensive rebounds per game than the Bucks.
Jennings, after his 34-point outburst in Game 1, has shot 3-for-15, 5-for-11, 9-for-16, 8-for-20 and 4-for-15 in the five games since. Delfino, who led Milwaukee with 20 points, is shooting only 38 percent from the field, and Skiles has had to roll the dice on Jerry Stackhouse, Ersan Ilyasova and Luke Ridnour from game to game, not knowing what he'll get from his bench on any given night.
Come Sunday, we'll see which players are gamers, and which coach can make the one or two tactical adjustments that will keep a season alive and send the other team home.
And, as Woodson showed with his use of a zone defense in the pivotal third quarter Friday night, it might be an adjustment that has been kept in someone's back pocket all season, waiting to be brought out at just the right time.