John Salmons let out a huge sigh at his locker before a wide grin crept across his face. The questions of whether the Milwaukee Bucks can hang with the Atlanta Hawks are over.
Salmons scored 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting, Kurt Thomas had eight points, 13 rebounds and four stitches, and the Bucks never let up after a hot start in a 107-89 Game 3 victory on Saturday night after a three-day layoff. "It’s just good to finally play. That was a tough three days thinking about what you have to do, what you should do," said Salmons, who was acquired in a trading deadline deal that’s helped spark Milwaukee’s postseason run. "It’s good to get the game going."
The series is now on, too.
Atlanta still leads 2-1 after two double-digit victories at home, when the Bucks looked overmatched without the injured Andrew Bogut.
"We came out with a lot of energy. We knew that would be the only way we’d be able to win," Salmons said. "We’ve got to play as close to perfect as possible and we did a good job of that."
The Bucks shot 68 percent in the first quarter and 51 percent for the game. Milwaukee’s stingy defense returned, too, holding the Hawks to 32 percent shooting through three quarters to turn the fourth into trash time.
"It was nice to see the guys show up again," Bucks coach Scott Skiles said. "This is the team that I’m used to coaching and seeing, with a lot of intensity."
Rookie Brandon Jennings added 13 points and played 11 minutes in the second half after a fall late in the first half where he landed hard on his elbow and hip. He didn’t miss a beat, though.
"I was so pumped up, I didn’t want to miss any part of the game," he said.
Milwaukee proved that the Hawks may have to "Fear the Deer" after all when the series picks up again Monday in Milwaukee with Game 4.
Only once did Atlanta appear poised to make a run. Joe Johnson scored 25 points for Atlanta and helped the Hawks cut the lead to nine early in the third quarter, but Jennings and the Bucks turned up the pressure.
Jennings sent a soft pass to Luc Richard Mbah a Moute in the lane and Mbah a Moute’s layup spun around the rim twice before falling in as the rookie point guard twisted his body 25 feet away in an effort to make the ball fall.
Moments later, Carlos Delfino hit his second straight 3-pointer to make it 64-47 after starting Game 3 by missing his first five shots. Salmons, who also had seven assists, followed with spinning 5-footer in the lane.
"The ball was moving a little more. That’s our style of basketball. We share the ball. A lot of guys got involved," said Mbah a Moute, who finished with 12 points. "That paid dividends."
Jennings then whipped the crowd into a frenzy late in the quarter, stripping Mike Bibby and sending a behind-the-back bounce pass to Jerry Stackhouse for a dunk as Milwaukee took a 78-57 lead into the fourth.
While the Hawks may boast the "Highlight Factory" in Atlanta, Milwaukee went buck wild back home in the Bradley Center after spending three days brooding over the tapes of the embarrassing road losses.
The Bucks found their mark from 3-point range, hitting 10 of 23 after going 10 of 44 in the first two games.
Jennings, who had nine points in Game 2, made three 3s and scored 11 points in the first quarter. Salmons hit all five of his first-quarter attempts and added 11 as Milwaukee built a 31-13 advantage and led 36-19 after the period.
"For us to come out, the way we played in the first quarter, that’s unacceptable," Johnson said. "Give the Bucks credit, man. They fed off this crowd tonight and got their team off to a fast start and they never looked back."
Josh Smith, who mentioned there was "nothing to do" in Milwaukee earlier this week, was mostly quiet with seven points and 12 rebounds. He fell late in the first half and appeared to be limping slightly the rest of the game. Center Al Horford had 10 points, but only three rebounds in 30 minutes.
"I live in Atlanta, stay in Atlanta, play for Atlanta, love Atlanta," Smith said. "I didn’t say anything about their fans. I didn’t say anything that wasn’t true."
Thomas, a 15-year veteran, went in for stitches early in the second quarter after taking an inadvertent shot to the chin and missed 4 1/2 minutes of game action, but even lightly used Dan Gadzuric had 10 rebounds in 17 minutes for Milwaukee.
Bucks owner and U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl watched the team’s first home postseason game in four years in his customary seat just behind center court, and Milwaukee hit 12 of its first 15 shots to start the game.
He and the rest of the Bucks can only wonder how far they might go in the postseason with a healthy Bogut. Bogut doled out left-handed high fives from the bench with his right arm still in a large cast from the elbow down after breaking his right hand, spraining his wrist and dislocating his elbow in an ugly fall three weeks ago.
The strong shooting plus the play of Thomas and Gadzuric have given the Bucks new hope that this series won’t be a short one without Bogut.
"There was a lot of pressure on us to come out and win Game 3," Jennings said. "But we can’t celebrate. We’ve got to come back Monday and do the same thing."
NOTES: Milwaukee is 12-16 at the Bradley Center all-time in the playoffs. … Bucks GM John Hammond was named the NBA executive of the year earlier Saturday after Milwaukee won 12 more games than the previous year to go 46-36, the most since 2000-01.