The Milwaukee Bucks entered Tuesday night's game against the Atlanta Hawks with a lingering sting from an embarrassing loss to the New York Knicks the night before. At 2.5 games behind the idle Knicks for the right to the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket, the Bucks desperately needed to bank a home win against the sixth-seeded Hawks -- one of only eight NBA teams that sported a winning record on the road heading into the night's action. After shooting 34.2 percent and scoring just 12.2 points per game in his first six contests as a member of the Bucks, Monta Ellis exploded for a game-high 33 points and eight assists to trump Josh Smith's 30-point, 18-rebound double-double as the Bucks picked up an important 108-101 victory.
In case you didn't know, the Bucks usually struggle to beat winning teams. The only NBA squads that have fared worse than the Bucks against +.500 squads this season (7-19 record) are the Toronto Raptors, New Jersey Nets, Washington Wizards and Charlotte Bobcats. Any win against a quality opponent is a big deal for Milwaukee, especially considering their serious pursuit of the No. 8 seed. In this contest, injuries to Ersan Ilyasova (back spasms) and Carlos Delfino (groin injury) opened space for the Bucks' two best defenders -- Ekpe Udoh and Luc Mbah a Moute -- to slide into the starting lineup and set the tone on defense from the opening tip.
Udoh may be the true centerpiece of the five-player deal originally headlined by Monta Ellis, and he flashed all of his valuable defensive skills early in the game. He kept Josh Smith out of the paint, limited J-Smoove to 1-5 shooting in the first quarter and added four rebounds, a steal and two blocks for good measure. Mbah a Moute did his part by holding Joe Johnson scoreless in the first, and the Udoh - LRMAM unit forced the Hawks into 10 early turnovers and 39.1 percent shooting as the Bucks jumped out to a 40-25 lead early in second quarter. As soon as Udoh left the game with 3:46 remaining in the first half, Josh Smith rattled off nine quick points on 4-5 shooting to salvage his half and pull the Hawks within nine at intermission. By the end of the half he had already scored 17 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, which earned him a (more) special place in Hawks history:
Josh Smith is now 5th all-time in Hawks franchise history with 174 double-doubles. Passed Dominique Wilkins on the list.— Dime Alert (@DimeAlert) March 28, 2012
The Bucks' offense is what really made the difference in the game, and for the first time nearly everything the Bucks did flowed effectively through Monta Ellis. He floundered in his first six games for Bucks, but the jumpers and layups that refused to fall those other nights found the bottom of the net on Tuesday. Ellis led all scorers with 33 points on 15-24 shooting and added a team-high eight assists as he artfully mixed pick-and-roll penetration with mid-post turnarounds and transition finishes. He finally earned his first 20+ point game in a Bucks uniform, and the team needed that type of effort to hang on and get the win.
It would be tempting to say the Jennings and Ellis backcourt is finally starting to gel on a night where Ellis posted 33 points and eight assists to go with Jennings' 18 points and six assists, but some of the success had to do with the same jumpers just going in a bit more often. After the Bucks forced Mike Dunleavy to take on the world on Monday, they shot 50.0 percent from the field against the Hawks and overcame a 50-32 disparity in the paint by stroking mid-range jumpers and taking good care of the ball.
The Hawks played a fairly spunky game in their encore to the four-overtime marathon win over the Utah Jazz on Sunday, but sloppiness bogged down their offense. Jeff Teague scored well enough (15 points, 6-8 FGs), but shirked his duties as a point guard as he committed a game-high seven turnovers -- more than any two Bucks players combined. Joe Johnson struggled to find his shot (4-14 FGs) with Mbah a Moute hounding him, so most of the pressure fell on Josh Smith, who scored 30 points but drifted into long jumper mode along with Joe Johnson in the fourth quarter.
The only other man to step up for the Hawks was backup forward Ivan Johnson, but boy did he ever step up. After a quiet and unremarkable first half (three points), Johnson transformed into a ubiquitous force for the final two periods. He banged in the paint, filled the lane on fast breaks and confidently drained pick-and-pop jumpers, all to the tune of 17 points on a perfect 7-7 shooting. The Bucks never truly pulled away because Smith and Johnson didn't allow them to do so, but ultimately the Hawks' duo couldn't match Monta Ellis' 10-point explosion in the final four minutes and the Bucks grabbed the win.
Now Milwaukee (23-27) sits two games behind the Knicks for the No. 8 slot in the Eastern Conference, while the Hawks (30-21) moved into sole possession of the No. 6 seed and trail the Indiana Pacers by one half game.
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