by Lang Whitaker

I was in Atlanta for about 36 hours earlier this week, and I managed to swing by the Hawks/Bucks game on Tuesday night. How often do you get a chance to see the first-place Atlanta Hawks?

I was sitting in a suite so I wasn’t near enough to hear much and I didn’t keep notes, but here’s what I recall:

The Hawks started slow and didn’t play well at all. They couldn’t get Joe Johnson the ball, Josh Smith was shooting bricks. Even Zaza Pachulia wasn’t able to do his thing of missing all those low-post shots and getting his own rebounds. To me, the most troublesome part was their inability to get the ball to Joe Johnson — he was coming off the Eastern Conference player of the week award, and they still weren’t able to utilize him for most of the first half, even as a decoy. The Bucks, meanwhile, were playing pretty well, although I knew Terry Stotts was coaching and it was only a matter of time before the Hawks would be allowed back in the game.

The Hawks made a run in the third quarter, led by L’il Ty Lue. Josh Childress also made a lot of nice drives to the rim and had a vicious dunk over Brian Skinner and his King Tut goatee. They finally got Joe Johnson involved, and had a 10 point lead with 8 minutes left, and then everything fell apart. The Bucks started making shots, the Hawks got cold, and the Bucks got some key buckets from Ersan Ilyasova (who?), and the Bucks got the win by two points.

I couldn’t believe some of the dubious coaching decisions that were going on throughout the game by both coaches. For instance, there were three glaring mistakes in the last four seconds.

1) The Bucks had a free throw to make it a 2 point lead with 4 seconds left. Woodson removed the 6-10 Shelden Williams and put in the 6-1 Salim Stoudemire. I’m not sure why you wouldn’t leave your tall guys in the game when you might desperately need a rebound, but Woody took him out. Couldn’t they at least put in Matt Frieje, who’s tall and can shoot?

2) Ilyasova hit the free throw, but the Hawks were out of timeouts (nice), so they had to take the ball out of bounds under the basket and go the length of the floor in 4 seconds.

3) The Hawks threw it in to Joe Johnson, who was running toward the inbounds passer and away from the Hawks’ basket. And according to my spies on press row, Terry Stotts yelled for the Bucks to foul him because they had a foul to give. So instead of making Joe catch the ball and turn around and go the length of the floor in 4 seconds, the Bucks fouled, stopped the clock with 3.6 seconds left and let the Hawks take the ball out of bounds closer to midcourt on the sideline. (Turned out not to matter because Joe got stripped by Ruben Patterson as the clock ran out.)

During the game, Russ mentioned something cool about Michael Redd that I’d never really noticed: Watch how whenever he shoots the ball — whether it’s a free throw or a running jump shot — his head never moves, staying perfectly still like it’s bolted onto his shoulders. No wonder he shoots with such accuracy.

Ilyasova played really well, hitting his first career three-pointer to give the Bucks a late lead. His biggest contribution, however, was probably in a third quarter timeout during the ever-popular “Kiss Cam” segment. After showing various couples on the scoreboard and shaming them into kissing each other, they ended with a shot of Ilyasova and Brian Skinner on the bench, who were both clearly watching the scoreboard. Instead of playing it off like they weren’t watching, Ilyasova’s face lit up and he reached over and grabbed Skinner and tried to give him a hug. Skinner cracked up and broke free of his grasp.

Salim Stoudamire finally got some playing time for Atlanta, but it’s amazing to me how he still doesn’t know the plays they run. Twice he came down and set up in the corner on the court and had everyone else on the team motioning for him to go somewhere else.

And a special paragraph for Shelden Williams: When he concentrates on rebounding he’s great — he finished with an eye-popping 15 boards — but he’s almost completely ineffective on offense. One time he caught the ball all alone under the rim and managed to get called for a walk. More than once he caught the ball and had no idea what to do with it, and a few times he didn’t seem to understand the concept of swining the ball about to find the open guy. Really frustrating to watch. It doesn’t help that he seems to be pressing, too. I think once he gets more comfortable he’ll settle in. At least I hope so. After the game I went down to Coach Woodson’s press conference. Someone asked how he felt about Shelden’s game, particularly his offensive contributions, and Woody said, “Hell, if I can 15 rebounds a night from Shelden I’ll be thrilled.”
In the locker room, the Hawks all seemed pretty ticked about the loss. Joe Johnson sat in his locker, silent, for about five minutes before taking a shower. After a while they seemed to move on, and I told Josh Childress that I thought he needed a haircut. He asked why, and I told him it was because I turned on a game last week and thought Billy Knight was out there playing.

This was Atlanta’s second home loss in a row, both on last-second shots. I think it’s OK, though, because the Hawks are without two of their projected starters — the Hawks really need Speedy Claxton healthy, and when Marvin Williams gets back they’ll be even more difficult to contain.