MILWAUKEE — Jamal Crawford saw the end to his series-long shooting slump coming, making a promise after the pregame shootaround: It’ll be back tonight.
Crawford then went out and finally played like the NBA’s sixth man of the year in the playoffs, scoring 24 points to help the Atlanta Hawks beat the Milwaukee Bucks 83-69 on Friday night to force a seventh game in the first-round series.
“I felt like I was letting everybody down the first few games, especially the last game,” Crawford said. “I haven’t slept much the last couple of days. Usually in that situation the next game can’t come fast enough.”
Crawford was coming off a miserable 4-for-18 shooting performance in Game 5, and wasn’t much better in the first four games.
Now he’s looking more like the instant-offense threat he was in the regular season, and the Hawks are back from the brink of an improbable first-round exit at the hands of a team that wasn’t expected to do much in the playoffs.
Hawks coach Mike Woodson told Crawford to just keep shooting.
“There’s going to be nights where he just doesn’t put it in the hole,” Woodson said. “But tonight, he was there when we needed him.”
Game 7 is Sunday in Atlanta.
Carlos Delfino scored 20 for the Bucks, who came into the game hoping to finish off their heavily favored opponent but instead went completely flat coming out of halftime and couldn’t pull off a late rally attempt.
Bucks coach Scott Skiles said his team looked “panicky” at times, especially on offense.
“It’s the first time we’ve been in this type of game and we didn’t react nearly as well as we would’ve liked to have reacted, that’s for sure,” Skiles said. “Now we’ve got to find a way to go down there and get another one.”
It was an ugly night for two of the Bucks’ top offensive threats, John Salmons and Brandon Jennings.
Jennings scored 12 points on 4-for-15 shooting, including 1 of 9 from 3-point range. The rookie missed his first six shots and made questionable decisions with the ball after playing well through most of the first five games of the series.
“It’s Game 7 now,” Jennings said. “We worked so hard for this. We’ve got to go in there and know that we can win. We didn’t prepare all year just to get to the playoffs and then just say forget it.”
Salmons finished with eight points on 2-for-13 shooting.
Joe Johnson scored 22 points, and Al Horford had 15 points and 15 rebounds for Atlanta.
The Hawks outscored the Bucks 29-11 in the third quarter to take a 15-point lead, as Milwaukee made only 3 of 17 shots in the quarter.
The Bucks then tried to make a comeback in the last six minutes.
Milwaukee’s Jerry Stackhouse — who brought down the house by singing a soulful rendition of the national anthem before the game — made a 3-pointer, and the Bucks turned it into a four-point play when Kurt Thomas was fouled and hit a free throw.
Two more free throws by Stackhouse cut the lead to seven with 5:14 left, but Johnson hit a jumper and Crawford drove for a layup to put the Hawks back up by 11. Jennings answered with a layup, and Johnson missed a layup.
Jennings then missed a 3-pointer and Salmons got the rebound, but Josh Smith forcefully blocked Salmons’ shot and the Bucks couldn’t rally from there.
“The bottom line today is we brought our hard hats and not our fishing caps,” Smith said. “We established ourselves early. They gave us a fight, but we were just hungry tonight. I haven’t seen us play like this the whole series.”
Milwaukee led by three at the half, and Delfino hit a driving layup to begin the third quarter.
But the Bucks went silent for nearly 8 minutes from there, allowing the Hawks to go on a 19-0 run that included a steal and fast-break slam dunk by Smith, who fired up the crowd by posing and holding his hand to his ear. Smith has been booed relentlessly by Bucks fans after joking early in the series that there wasn’t anything to do in Milwaukee.
Milwaukee wasn’t expected to do much in this series, having lost center Andrew Bogut to a gruesome arm injury near the end of the regular season.
Atlanta took a 2-0 series lead. But then the series shifted back to Milwaukee, the Bucks asserted themselves on defense and won both games — then stole Game 5 in Atlanta with a late run.
“We just realize that we had a bad third quarter,” Thomas said. “We’re still confident as a team. We’ll regroup and we’ll play better on Sunday.”