That funny math he used to predict the “Bucks in six” has crumbled over the past eight quarters of this series. It’s no longer a laughing matter, not when your season and potentially your career in Milwaukee is potentially coming to an end.
Jennings has vowed to play until the final buzzer in Sunday’s Game 4, hoping to stave off elimination for at least one more games. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that this series is every bit the mismatch most of us thought it would be on paper. And it’s even tougher to avoid the obvious question that will linger between now and free agency for Jennings and the Bucks. Do they stick together after four extremely productive years for Jennings, a restricted free agent at season’s end?
He’s helped the Bucks to the playoffs twice, his rookie season and this one, and he’s shown his many critics that his decision to bypass college for a one-season detour in Italy did nothing to damage his NBA stock. But in a league filled with as diverse and talented a group of point guards as its potentially ever had, where exactly does a player like Jennings fit?
“Great question,” an Eastern Conference general manager said. “His rookie season I felt like he was going to join that group of elite point guards, especially after what he did to the [Atlanta] Hawks during the playoffs. He showed off playmaking skills and scored at will in the postseason, doing things you don’t normally expect from a rookie. And he’s been solid ever since. But I don’t know that he’s moved into that tip tier of point guards. He’s not there, not yet.”
Jennings has averaged an impressive 17.0 points, 5.7 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 291 career regular season games. Considered more of a scorer than a facilitator, Jennings has proven himself capable of handling both responsibilities for the Bucks. Still, there is some uncertainty about his desire to stick around in Milwaukee during what could be a complete rebuilding situation this summer.
His backcourt mate Monta Ellis can opt out and become an unrestricted free agent this summer. And Samuel Dalembert, Mike Dunleavy, Marquis Daniels, J.J. Redick and Joel Pryzbilla will all be unrestricted free agents this summer.
The Halloween deadline for Jennings and the Bucks to agree on an extension of his rookie contract passed without either side admitting that they were even close to getting something done.
That’s one reason why this series against the Heat is such a showcase event for Jennings. It’s his final platform before free agency to remind the league that he’s a player a franchise can build around. The upset guarantee and his 26-point effort in Game 1 was the ideal buzz and result for Jennings early on.
But he’s managed just 24 points in the two games since the opener, shooting 8-for-30 from the floor and 1-for-14 from beyond the 3-point line. The Heat have stymied the Bucks’ offense late in all three games, eliminating the pick-and-roll as an option for Jennings and Ellis when the game is one the line.
“One of the problems we have with that is our size in the backcourt,” Bucks coach Jim Boylan said. “We’re not a big team. So when they are out there trapping and staying with the ballhandler like that, they are putting a lot of pressure on you, first of all. Secondly, they have good size. It’s easy for me stand up in the huddle and say ‘we’ve got to make a quick pass, we’ve got to move that ball and take advantage of them double teaming.’ But sometimes it’s hard to do. They are flooding the strong side and cutting off passing angles and it makes it difficult to find the right man, the open man, with a pass. It’s usually a cross court pass and those are always dangerous because of their speed and activity.”
This is one of the premier defensive teams in the league we’re talking about in the Heat, who boast quality perimeter defenders in not only LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but also Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and Ray Allen.
Chalmers and Cole have taken a particular interest in limiting Jennings, both of them no doubt smarting from the brash attitude and words Jennings has been sure to share with the world.
“They are really getting physical,” Boylan said. “It’s playoff basketball. So there is a lot more contact than in the regular season. And anytime we use any sort of pick-and-rolls, they are double-teaming him and putting pressure on him. That combination is difficult. And they are focused in on both [Jennings] and Monta. They did what they needed to do, be physical, be big and cut off those angles for finding people.”
At 23, Jennings is probably done growing. So there is nothing he can do about that size disadvantage and the fact that the Heat are executing flawlessly in wearing him down. But he has at least 48 minutes left to prove that his skill set can best whatever advantage the opposition brings to the show.
That Bucks in six stuff is obviously history.
Whether or not Jennings’ time with the Bucks is, however, … well, only time will tell.
LOS ANGELES – Opposing playoff coaches Vinny Del Negro and Lionel Hollins have a lot in common. Both men have improved their clubs’ winning percentage each season as coach. The last two soared over .600 for consecutive top-five finishes in the rugged Western Conference.
Both won 56 games this season to set each franchise’s record for most wins.
While both have produced excellent seasons by any measure, one will be going home earlier than hoped. And despite public stamps of approval this week from their superiors, neither coach’s future is certain, and prior to Monday’s Game 2, neither was pretending otherwise.
“Would I liked to have had a contract before this? Of course,” said Hollins, now in his fifth consecutive season and third stint as the Grizzlies coach, a relationship that dates back to the franchise’s roots in Vancouver. “But that’s a decision that’s made and you go and do the best job you can, and it’s not like it had to be done before the season is over. It’s just like players, you can extend players early or you can wait till later. Guys become free agents and they go out in free agency and sometimes it gives you leverage and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Del Negro, who guided the Clippers to the franchise’s first Pacific Division title and first 50-win campaign in his third season and second with All-Star point guard Chris Paul, has been one of the most scrutinized coaches since Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf hired him without any coaching experience five years ago. Del Negro lasted two .500 seasons there before being fired and then hired by the Clippers.
L.A. advanced to the West semifinals last season, but with Paul and Blake Griffin banged up, was swept by the San Antonio Spurs. Del Negro said this season’s goal is to go deeper, which implies a goal of achieving another franchise milestone, a first conference final. It would take finishing off Memphis and then likely ousting the reigning West-champion Oklahoma City Thunder.
“I believe in what we’ve done here,” Del Negro said. “I think my assistant coaches have done a phenomenal job and I’ve had great support from ownership and the front office … and everybody to try and put the best team out there possible.
“Right now the focus should be on the playoffs, should be on the players and the commitment that they’re putting in to help us be successful. And all those things (contract situation) will get answered at the end.” (more…)
MIAMI – When Brandon Jennings made that upset prediction involving his Milwaukee Bucks and the Miami Heat, he did so with Larry Sanders factored into the equation.
The Bucks’ rim protector and Defensive Player of the Year nominee has to play more than the 18 minutes and 41 seconds he played in that Game 1 loss. He was in foul trouble early and never got into a rhythm. He sat out the final four games of the regular season after a hard fall during an April 10 loss to Orlando, so Sunday night’s game was his first real game action in almost two weeks.
It showed. Sanders barely made a ripple in the first playoff action of his career, scoring six points, piling up as many fouls (five) as he did rebounds and not registering a single block.
Credit the Heat for going after him early and often and doing it in all sorts of ways. LeBron James and Udonis Haslem challenged him at the rim on three first-quarter possessions and Chris Bosh made sure to follow through on the game plan by stepping outside for jump shots in an effort to drag Sanders away from the basket.
If the Bucks are going to avoid a repeat performance in Game 2 on Tuesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena, they’ll need to make the proper adjustments and make sure Sanders leaves a much bigger footprint on the action. (On NBA TV, pregame 7 p.m. ET)
“I’m going to keep myself in the game and play better,” Sander said. “Every time we were aggressive on defense, we got good things out of it. When they came out and they were aggressive, we couldn’t really match their intensity.”
The Bucks couldn’t match the Heat’s balance or energy either, especially when it mattered most. Jennings and Monta Ellis were plenty aggressive on both ends, combining for 28 points and five of the Bucks’ 12 steals.
They didn’t do a great job of involving Sanders or anyone else, though, an adjustment that Ellis and Bucks coach Jim Boylan said must change for Game 2.
“A lot of guys that usually help us out on the offensive end didn’t have a good shooting night,” Ellis said. “You’re going to have nights like that. We just have to stay together as a team, keep trusting each other … we have to play a perfect game, everybody has to be engaged.”
Sanders in particular. It’s difficult to scheme against players like Jennings and Ellis, guys who are every bit as craft and athletic as the Heat defenders assigned to stop them. Designing an attack for Sanders is much more deliberate. And when it is executed properly, the way it was in Game 1, can make a guy who averages nearly three block night a non-factor.
“I had to be a little less aggressive with the fouls I picked up,” Sanders said. “I wanted to be more aggressive in the fourth (quarter) but I went into the fourth with four fouls. But they were really aggressive in how they attacked the basket for rebounds, they attacked us in pick and rolls. They were really aggressive. And that was so smart on their part, to use Bosh the way they did. Definitely, in Game 2, Game 3, Game 4, or however many games we play, you’ll see me more aggressive if I’m not in foul trouble.”
MIAMI –Brandon Jennings is fearless. The Milwaukee Bucks’ point guard always has been and probably always will be. And it’s hard not to admire that trait in him.
You don’t skip college for pro ball in Italy, declare yourself better than than international teen sensation Ricky Rubio and then back that claim up with four fantastic NBA seasons and have an ounce of fear in you.
But that fearlessness alone won’t be enough to propel the Bucks in their first round playoff series against the Miami Heat. They’ll need All-Star work out of Jennings and equal doses of fearlessness and spectacular play from the entire roster just to make this thing as interesting on the court as it has been in the build up to Game 1 here tonight at AmericanAirlines Arena. (On TNT, 7 p.m. ET)
Thursday night at the Wisconsin Sports Award ceremony, where he was picking up an award for his work in the community, Jennings uttered these famous words: ”I’m real confident. I’m sure everybody is writing us off but I see us winning the series in six.”
There is, however, recent evidence that a No. 8 can actually pull this off.
Two of the five instances in league history when a No. 1 seed has been upset by a No. 8 have come in the past two seasons. The Philadelphia 76ers did it last year against the Chicago Bulls, but only after Bulls All-Star Derrick Rose tore his ACL in Game 1. And the Memphis Grizzlies stunned the San Antonio Spurs the year before that.
This Heat team, however, is a far superior outfit to either of those aforementioned upset victims. They won 66-games this season, including that monster 27-game win streak, and have been vetted like few other great teams when you consider all that has gone on with this Heat crew the past three seasons.
“We don’t feel we can be beat in a series,” Heat center Chris Bosh said. “We say that in the most humble manner possible. We’ve been humbled already. I think before, all those other teams [upset], they were either injured or just caught slipping or they were in a five-game series. We’re not in that predicament so it’s a little different.”
The Bucks also have to contend with a rested and hungry LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, two stars who have welcomed all challenges since joining forces with Bosh here in Miami.
Jennings might very well have the advantage in his individual matchup against Mario Chalmers, though the ultra-confident Chalmers would love to argue that. And the Bucks have the same fighting chance any No. 8 seed does before the games actually begin. But it’s not like the Heat don’t see the challenge coming. They’ve been on guard for three years running now.
That would explain the reaction of Bosh, Wade and the rest of the Heat. They’ve seen and heard it all before (you remember the Indiana series from last year or the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals last year?). All that’s left is to play the games.
“We’ve been in every situation where it’s happened,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We’ve been up in a series and it’s happened. We’ve been down in a series and it’s happened. It’s happened, so what? [Sunday] night, bring it. That’s the only thing we can control.”
It’s going to take more than a healthy dose of bravado for the Bucks, or anyone else for that matter, to beat the Heat.
Whatever lack of enthusiasm or even dread the Milwaukee Bucks might be feeling about their rapidly approaching postseason public flogging is entirely understandable. Assuming the Bucks do eventually nail down the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference bracket, their reward will be worse than a lump of coal or a Miss Congeniality award.
They’ll get to face the Miami Heat in a best-of-seven series, requiring them to endure four spankings as the NBA’s defending champions rev up for their title defense.
So yeah, we get it. It’s not much to look forward to. But the way the Bucks have gone about their business lately, you’d think Milwaukee would rather not participate in the playoffs at all. There are several teams headed for the lottery, but playing smarter and harder than Milwaukee lately, that look as if they’d appreciate the opportunity more and give a better showing than the Bucks. Orlando, for one, bad as its record is. Minnesota, for another.
Losers in seven of their past 10 games heading into Saturday’s home clash with Toronto and just 4-10 since a moderately encouraging 2-1 West Coast trip a month ago, the Bucks have been busy fulfilling all the concerns about them when the year began. And squandering what was a legit chance to move up to No. 7 by catching Boston.
The dynamic backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellisis undersized and defensively challenged. On too many nights, there’s a your-turn, my-turn pattern to their offensive probes, and a disjointed or absent playmaking that has Milwaukee’s frontcourt players all too happy to come off the bench if it spares them some standing around with that starting duo.
Short-timers abound, in contract terms, and the resultant lack of cohesiveness and long-term vision predictably has followed. Jennings is headed to restricted free agency and has handled it poorly, pouting in or after games, through actions or words, more like an immature rookie than a fourth-year floor leader. Ellis can opt out of his deal and, at times in the past month, has played as if on a salary drive.
Samuel Dalembert, acquired to stem some bleeding up front, was needed less once Larry Sanders finally got traction this season. So first coach Scott Skiles and then replacement Jim Boylan warehoused Dalembert – over there on the bench next to drydocked Drew Gooden.
Dalembert’s deal is up once the Bucks head into summer, as is Mike Dunleavy‘s, as is J.J. Redick‘s, who probably will test the free-agent market and revive criticism that Milwaukee maybe gave up too soon on the small forward shipped to Orlando in that deal, Tobias Harris.
Ersan Ilyasova only recently has played up to the deal he landed last summer in free agency. Sanders reverted to some bad tossed-from-games-habits in a recent stretch. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was hurt less and in better shape before he got paid a couple years ago. Whatever bump the Bucks got from parting ways with Skiles appears to have been temporary – they’re 20-23 under Boylan – and the defense (104.1 ppg over the past 14) hardly is Miami-ready
Meanwhile, the locker room has been light and largely unaffected by all of the sputtering. During postgame media time Wednesday, after the loss to the nowhere-bound Timberwolves, somebody kept humming the tune of “The Final Countdown,” loud enough to be picked up in audio reports. Their third-quarter collapse at New York on Friday kept their magic number for clinching the playoff spot at two.
They’ll get it soon enough. But it’s too bad the NBA has no surrogate system, in which the disinterested Bucks players could vote someone pluckier and more eager to take their place in the first round. The way they’re going, the playoffs will be an opportunity wasted on them.
Missed a game last night? Wondering what the latest news around the NBA is this morning? The Morning Shootaround is here to try to meet those needs and keep you up on what’s happened around the league since the day turned.
The one recap to watch: There must be something in the way Nuggets coach George Karl teaches the game, because several of his ex-pupils are getting it done for contenders in the Eastern Conference. On the Heat, his former big man Chris Andersen provided some solid minutes in the Heat’s surprising win over the Spurs in San Antonio. Over in New York, though, three ex-Nuggets are getting it done as the Knicks keep on rolling and their game against the Celtics is our one to watch. First, we had Carmelo Anthony doing what he does best — score and score often — as he led New York with 24 points and added 10 rebounds. Then we had J.R. Smith doing his best big man impression with a team-best 12 boards off the bench. And finally, Kenyon Martin provided some solid interior defense and rebounding work as New York picks up its eighth straight win.
Spurs say Ginobili out three-to-four weeks – As it is well known in NBA circles, Spurs swingman Manu Ginobili is bound to miss a few games every season — the Argentine blur has yet to play an entire season in his career. But the timing of Ginobili’s injuries the last few seasons — such as his elbow injury right before the 2011 playoffs — could not have been worse. Now Ginobili has a hamstring issue bothering him that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich tells the San Antonio Express-News’ Dan McCartney could keep Ginobili out for a while:
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich puts Manu Ginobili’s timetable to return from a strained right hamstring at weeks rather than days, a significant setback to the team’s pre-playoff preparation.
“It’s a huge blow for us,” he said, “because he’s the guy that allows our second team to do what they’ve been doing all year long.
“It’s a huge loss for that group, and in game situations it’s a tough one because he’s one of two guys, he and Tony (Parker), are the creators who make things happen for everybody else on the court. It’s an unfortunate loss at this point of the season.”
Popovich said it is unknown if Ginobili’s injury will stretch into the postseason, which begins on April 20. Excluding Sunday’s home game against Miami, the Spurs have nine games remaining in the regular season, with the last coming on April 17 against Minnesota.
“We don’t know how his leg is going to react,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can.”
Ginobili, 35, was injured in the first quarter of Friday’s victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. He’s missed 13 games this season with a variety of ailments, including a strain in his other hamstring. The Spurs are 9-2 without him.
Jennings calls out coach on Twitter — It hasn’t exactly been all sunshine and roses for Brandon Jennings this season in Milwaukee. Before the season began, Jennings hoped for an extension with Milwaukee, but he never got it. Then, coach Scott Skiles — who seemed to chafe at times with Jennings — was fired and Jim Boylan took over and, initially, Jennings had nice things to say about his new boss. Around the trade deadline, reports came out that Jennings had irreconcilable differences with team brass, which Jennings almost immediately refuted. Jennings was benched the entire fourth quarter of last week’s loss to Philadelphia and, apparently, the boil-over point game in a Saturday loss to Oklahoma City. With the Bucks down 109-99, Boylan took a late timeout, which Jennings questioned over Twitter, writes Sean Highkin of USA Today (tweet image available at the USA Today post):
When you’re unhappy with a decision your coach made, there are better ways to handle it than calling him out on Twitter. That didn’t stop Milwaukee Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings from taking to social media to question a late-game timeout called by coach Jim Boylan in the Bucks’ 109-99 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jennings deleted the tweet shortly after posting.
Jennings has made no secret of his unhappiness with the Bucks in recent months. As far back as last year, he was looking ahead to free agency and expressing a desire to sign in a big market. He did not sign an extension to his rookie contract with the Bucks before the October deadline, and openly talked about being intrigued by the Dallas Mavericks earlier this season. Jennings has even hinted he might do something unprecedented for player as high-profile as he is, and bypass restricted free agency by signing the qualifying offer this summer, essentially killing the Bucks’ leverage to keep or trade him beyond next year.
Boylan isn’t the first coach Jennings has clashed with this season, either. Scott Skiles and the Bucks mutually agreed to part ways in January after Skiles essentially lost control of the locker room. The team has turned its season around since appointing Boylan interim head coach, and are currently on pace for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, but Jennings’ own effectiveness has fallen off since the change. Under Skiles, Jennings averaged 18.5 points per game on 40.5 percent shooting with 16.5 attempts per game. Since Boylan took over, Jennings has averaged 16.8 points while shooting 38.2 percent on 15.1 attempts per game.
Martin wants to stick with Knicks — Kenyon Martin, 35, has made his bones in the NBA by employing a physical style and menacing on-court attitude that often rubbed opponents (and some coaches) the wrong way throughout his career. He spent part of the lockout-shortened season in China before joining the Clippers 20 games into the 2011-12 campaign and became a valuable member of L.A.’s bench crew. But talk of disharmony between him and coach Vinny Del Negro soured many teams on signing the former No. 1 overall pick and it wasn’t until Feb. 23 that the Knicks came calling, signing Martin to a pair of 10-day deals and then, eventually for the rest of the season. Martin has once again flourished, providing rebounding and defense for a New York frontline that has been harmed by injuries to Tyson Chandler, Kurt Thomas and Amar’e Stoudemire. Martin tells Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe he’s loving life in the Big Apple and would love to stay put, too:
Martin says he has found comfort with the New York Knicks after being a basketball vagabond for months, searching for an opportunity and seething because his reputation for clashing with teammates and coaches preceded him.
Such was the case last season with the Los Angeles Clippers, when Martin clashed at times with coach Vinny Del Negro, and word of those dustups spread to league executives, who were unsure whether they wanted an aging, crabby Martin on their roster.
He says those are misunderstandings. Martin, the No. 1 overall pick in 2000 by the Nets, plays with an attitude but is considered a likeable teammate. He still has a passion for winning, and perhaps that is mistaken for arrogance or bravado.
When asked about the Celtics passing on the opportunity to sign him despite being desperate for forwards, Martin said, “It just wasn’t them. It just wasn’t the Celtics. So everybody get [my wrath]. I’m just here to prove to people that I ain’t never lost it. I’m a better person than I am a basketball player.
“The chip I always play with, it ain’t got no bigger, but I’m here to prove that what I can do, that’s everybody every night. So it just don’t start with the Celtics. Whoever puts that uniform on that’s opposite of us, they’re going to see what they’re missing.”
Martin knows his reputation, and realizes there is little he can do to change perceptions. But his time in New York is gaining him equity around the league, perhaps making him a more marketable free agent this summer.
“It was upsetting before, but I don’t deal with it,” he said. “The people who know me, man, they know what I’m about. I’m about winning. I’m about my teammates. I care about the guys I suit up with. That’s what I’m about.
“So other people, ain’t been around me long, they gonna judge. I can’t help that. Somebody is always going to have something to say — good, bad, or indifferent — so I take it all with a grain of salt.”
Martin is enjoying his experience in New York.
“I would love to stay a Knick,” he said. “I don’t want to go nowhere. I am proving to this organization what I can be and who I am as a person on and off the court, and I think they see that. I’m here now and I’m going to make the best of this opportunity.”
Bynum not expected to give Sixers extra consideration — Other than Jrue Holiday‘s turn from solid, young player into an All-Star, the season has been a major disaster for the Sixers. From the start, the Sixers were without their prized offseason acquisition (Andrew Bynum) and spent the entire season in a will-he or won’t-he return waiting mode (which, ultimately ended with Bynum not returning). Along the way we had a Doug Collins meltdown, the stunted development of Evan Turner and subpar seasons from fellow offseason acquisitions such as DorellWright and Nick Young. Granted, Turner, Young and Wright would have looked better getting wide open perimeter looks playing off Bynum, but the season is what it is. On top of a rough season, the Sixers have to decide whether or not to re-sign Bynum, who will be an unrestricted free agent. John N. Mitchell of The Philadelphia Inquirer says the Sixers shouldn’t count on a hometown discount from Bynum on a future deal:
Trading for Bynum, who may not re-sign with the Sixers (and who may never be healthy enough to warrant the franchise’s taking that risk) could have allowed GM Tony DiLeo to venture into free agency this summer knowing that he had at least the second-best center in the league and a legitimate all-star point guard in Jrue Holiday. Evan Turner – who theoretically was supposed to be vastly improved by Bynum’s presence – would have blossomed and Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes, and Lavoy Allen would have increased their value as a result of playing alongside Bynum.
While it would be wonderful if Bynum – an unrestricted free agent – gave the Sixers special consideration in light of all that they lost in trading for him and the agonizing wait for him to return, a team source with knowledge of the situation said last week that he does not believe that will be the case.
The Sixers ultimately may have nothing to show for this deal – no Bynum, no Nik Vucevic, who looks as if he could be a budding star with the Magic, no Maurice Harkless, blossoming in his own way in Orlando, and one less first-round draft pick.
All once sparkling assets, they now are reminders of a potentially franchise-crippling mistake by the front office.
Ex-NBAer Anderson reflects on college days, NBA life — Kenny Anderson was perhaps one of the greatest point guards in New York prep basketball history, a McDonald’s All-American, a two-time AP All-American at Georgia Tech, the No. 2 overall pick of the 1991 NBA Draft and a one-time All-Star. He also played 17 seasons in the NBA and was an integral part of several exciting teams as a young player and a key veteran voice in the later stages of his career. All that to say that Anderson had quite the body of work in basketball and in a great interview with SBNation.com, Anderson looks back on his college days (including why he picked Georgia Tech over Syracuse), who is peaking in the NBA right now and more. It’s a great listen.
ICYMI of the night: If you’re not watching the Hornets, you’re missing out on the fantastic pick-and-roll combo that is Greivis Vasquez-to-Anthony Davis … :
MILWAUKEE – The respective head coaches were asked prior to the game Thursday which of their teams was feeling more desperate.
By the end of the night, the Lakers’ Mike D’Antoni had it all over the Bucks’ Jim Boylan. For all the wrong reasons.
Snapshot of the night, the latest in this tortuous season for L.A.: Kobe Bryant hopping out of the BMO Harris Bradley Center on one crutch, his left foot burning from a bone spur diagnosed after the game. Bryant did not talk with reporters in the dressing room but did say to Yahoo! Sports as he maneuvered toward a waiting car: “Inflamed on me. I’ll be all right.” The Lakers were staying over in Milwaukee before flying to Sacramento Friday, where Bryant is expected to be examined again.
This came at the tail end of what already had been a lousy night. After the 113-103 loss the Bucks, their eighth-place counterparts from the East. After another defensive collapse and a blown 13-point lead. After point guard Steve Nash exited for good at 5:13 of the third quarter with an aching back and hamstring. After an old, banged-up team – still smarting from Metta World Peace‘s knee surgery earlier in the day – showed its age, D’Antoni said, then got a little older and more banged-up.
“It’s been a long year, there’s no doubt about it,” forward Pau Gasol said. “A lot of ups and downs. But we’re here. We believe in ourselves. We have the weapons. Hopefully we will stay healthy enough to be able to give it our best shot. But it’s been difficult, no doubt about it.”
Bryant, who sprained his left ankle in Atlanta two weeks ago and missed two games, led the Lakers with 30 points Thursday but shot 6-of-17 from the floor. He was 2-of-8 in the second half, when L.A. got outscored 60-47 by a Bucks club that had dropped four in a row and wasn’t playing at all like a team, ahem, peaking for the playoffs.
But Milwaukee, 35-36, perked up and crept within two games of seventh-place Boston in the East. Led by Larry Sanders’ career-high 21 points and 13 rebounds, all five starters scored in double figures, and Marquis Daniels‘ defense on Bryant led an effort that limited the Lakers to 37.5 percent shooting after halftime, including 1-of-11 on 3-pointers.
“When you’re losing, it seems like you’ll never win again,” Daniels said. “Finally we got a win, we can breathe a little bit. Not breathe, but it’s fresh air and we’ve got to continue to build off this.”
The fact that D’Antoni’s team, 37-36, is sweating out games in late March and figures to do so right through however many it has in April, sums up the failures of its season. Nash is expected to face the Kings Saturday and, given Bryant’s recuperative track record, maybe he won’t miss time either. But with just nine games remaining, a Lakers team that so often can’t control its own scoreboard will be eyeballing others’.
“We have to,” Gasol conceded. “We don’t need anybody else to be injured, to be out, missing games, especially at this point of the year. So let’s see what happens. Hopefully Kobe will be healthy for the next game. Steve will be healthy. I’ll get healthier and we’ll continue to move forward.”
Continue? There was a distinct shifting of gears Thursday but grinding, like something headed toward reverse.
Headed toward the playoffs for the first time in three years and only the second time in seven, the Milwaukee Bucks have won four in a row. That includes overtime thrillers vs. Toronto and Utah in the past two and, before that at Dallas and Houston, the franchise’s first multi-victory Texas trip since 1986.
Monta Ellis was named the East’s player of the week – he’s averaging 26.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 7.5 assists and 4.8 steals in the winning streak – and Brandon Jennings has put up 18.0 ppg and 9.5 apg over the past eight. At 30-28, the Bucks woke up as close to the No. 2 spot in their conference (Indiana, 38-22) as they were to the falling out of the bracket to No. 9 (Philadelphia, 23-35).
So naturally, it’s time to bandy about possible coaching hires.
Actually, no, it’s silly. Jim Boylan, taking over after Scott Skiles‘ abrupt exit in early January, has calmed down and pulled together Milwaukee’s locker room. He’s getting good production from his undersized, offensive-minded backcourt and better results from the likes of Samuel Dalembert and Ersan Ilyasova. But he has that “interim” tag in front of his title, so options remain open.
Standard fare for talk shows and Internet boards, the Bucks’ head coaching gig was a topic on the airwaves when longtime Milwaukee sportswriter Dave Begeltuned in the other day. That’s when the light bulb went on over Begel’s head:
One name I didn’t hear, and one that I think should move to the very head of the line is a man I talked with last week who said he’d jump at the chance to coach the Bucks.
I asked him flat out if he would be willing to be the head coach of the Bucks.
“Of course,” he replied.
Gotta like that phrase-ology. Asked if he’d be willing to coach the Bucks, Abdul-Jabbar said “Of course.”
Abdul-Jabbar, of course, is part of the franchise fabric in Milwaukee. He was their No. 1 draft pick in 1969 before their second season, a prize conveyed by a coin flip with Phoenix that delivered not only a young superstar from UCLA – “Lew Alcindor” back then – but an NBA championship two years later. Milwaukee made it to The Finals again, its last, three years later.
A year after that, in 1975, Abdul-Jabbar wanted out of town, pushing for a trade either to New York or Los Angeles. The deal with the Lakers replenished the Bucks’ talent base with quality, at least, but the 7-foot-2 center was the one who won five more rings and played 14 more seasons to become the league’s all-time leading scorer.
Few ever have questioned Abdul-Jabbar’s basketball pedigree, which Begel got him talking about in presenting his credentials to be an NBA head coach.
But besides his reputation, what else would he bring to the Bucks?
“I know how to prepare for a season as an individual and I know what that means in terms of team commitment,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I can get all the right people together that have some chemistry and care about each other and they love the game. That’s where teams are made or not made successful.
“That’s very hard for GM’s to figure out. They know talent when they see it. But that ability to connect with your teammates, that personal chemistry is a hard thing to see in people. I can help players learn how to develop that chemistry. We had Pete Newell out here (in Los Angeles) and he was a master at understanding the personal fire within each player. I’d be a coach who can provide respect and keep the guys on the same page for a whole season.”
Lindsey Hunter is working the Phoenix Suns’ sidelines with a lot thinner resume than Capt. Sky Hook. Lots of career pluggers – lifetime coaches – have gotten two or three shots simply by climbing a coaching ladder, then lingering near a microphone.
But Abdul-Jabbar will be bucking a couple of trends if he winds up getting serious consideration from Milwaukee GM John Hammond and owner Herb Kohl.
First, there’s an apparent bias against centers among NBA head coaches. Bill Cartwright got a shot for a spell and, though he always was listed as power forward, Houston’s Kevin McHale certainly ranks among the league’s great big men. But others such as Patrick Ewing and Bob McAdoo have been waiting for years. Something about their specialness as players – seeing the game from about seven feet up – seems to work against them.
Second, there’s an apparent bias in the NBA against prickly sons of guns. The fraternal order of coaches and the league overall tends to rewards the regular Joes, the fellows who mix and blend and get along. Abdul-Jabbar came across for years as aloof and distant – a late Milwaukee Journal sports columnist said, “I interviewed his back for six years” – and more recently has seemed like one of those who “learn to say hello when it’s time to say goodbye.” The PR value of bringing the big fella back to a city he once fled would be mixed, possibly negligible.
Third and most important – the job is filled. If the Bucks indeed make the playoffs, even if it means a first-round collision with Miami, Boylan should be at the top of management’s list to stay on. He will have earned an offseason of prep time and a real training camp, at least. Abdul-Jabbar has him by 38,387 career NBA points, but this should not be about that.
MILWAUKEE – Gordon Hayward didn’t have the heft of reputation necessary to get the foul call in the final seconds of regulation Monday night against Milwaukee. That’s what it looked like to some, anyway, when the Utah Jazz’s third-year swingman drove to the rim, went up, created some measure of contact with Bucks forward Larry Sanders and had the ball knocked away.
Others wrote it off as a classic “swallowing the whistle” moment, the three referees making a conscious decision — contrary to everything the league claims and preaches — not to determine the outcome. The ball wound up in Enes Kanter‘s hands left of the basket, and his short baseline shot off one foot hit the rim and fell out into a scramble at the horn. Milwaukee won the overtime 10-9 on eight points by J.J. Redick and the clinching jumper by Monta Ellis.
In a sense, though, the Bucks won the game when Sanders took advantage of a break in the action to set up that Hayward play with the refs.
Previously in the fourth quarter, Sanders had greeted Kanter in front of the rim but his feet were planted in the restricted area. When the chest-to-chest contact came, he was called for the foul.
So, Sanders said he sought out veteran ref Dick Bavetta and his mates to get them all on the same page for Utah’s final possession of the fourth quarter.
“I asked them to make sure that was the rule – I didn’t leave my feet on the big guy [Kanter] and it was a foul,” Sanders said. “So, the next time I made sure I left my feet and went straight up. Once you’re straight up, you’re OK. I felt like I was on the same page with the referees at that point. As long as I didn’t swipe down.”
Sanders wound up with 16 rebounds and six blocks, including one of Paul Millsap in the final minute of overtime. He has logged at least one block in 40 consecutive games, which means he has a ways to go to match Elmore Smith‘s franchise mark of 61 straight back in 1975-76.
The NBA’s leader in blocks (3.23 per game), Sanders also will get heavy support for Most Improved Player — his 9.0 points and 9.0 rebounds nearly triple what he averaged last season.
“[Hayward] comes to the basket, Larry’s there. That’s what he’s done for us all year,” Bucks coach Jim Boylan said. “In my NBA experience, I look at Larry and I see a little bit of Tyson Chandler. Because, when I was in Chicago, Tyson was very similar: able to make a big play at the end of a game, a big block, a big tip-in or something like that. Larry has a lot of the same qualities.”
HOUSTON — A week ago nobody could figure out the Bucks. It seemed they had spent most of trade deadline day trying to trade Monta Ellis to Atlanta for Josh Smith and, when that failed, added another guard in J.J. Redick.
Can you spell “crowded backcourt?” Redick joined Ellis and Brandon Jennings in what looked like the kind of traffic jam that could tie up an intersection, let alone a team trying to hang on in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
“I don’t know what Milwaukee is doing,” Charles Barkley said on TNT. “They are just trying to cover the market on guards.”
The rest of the pundit class joined in a collective scratching of heads.
On Wednesday night, the Rockets were left scratching their heads when Jennings almost held onto the ball a half-tick too long, finally got it to Ellis and he put up a running, one-legged, one-armed turnaround that practically licked all of the paint off the rim before falling in to give the Bucks a 110-107 win.
It was the second time in two nights that Ellis played key role down the stretch. Coach Jim Boylan had sat Jennings for the final 3:32 on Tuesday night in Dallas and used Ellis to close out a win in Dallas. He finished with 22 points, nine assists and six steals against the Mavs. In Houston, Ellis racked up 27 points, 13 assists and six steals.
“I play basketball. Whatever the team needs me to do, I’m willing to do,” Ellis said in Dallas.
“I just got the shot off and got out of there,” Ellis said in Houston.
Nothing really has changed about Ellis’ game since the trade deadline. He’s still the most indiscriminate shooter in the league, hitting just 9 of his 24 shots against the Rockets, and that horn-beating prayer truthfully wasn’t much of a stretch from some of the others he’s hoisted along the way.
The Bucks lost their first three games coming out of the All-Star break by a combined six points, including one overtime defeat. But now they’ve taken a mini-sweep through Texas because the player they tried to trade away and who could opt out of his contract next summer, has given them the kind of sudden charge that usually comes from grabbing onto a high voltage wire.
So Ellis can bolt from Milwaukee if he wants; Redick might just be a short-term rental until he becomes a free agent in July; the starting point guard Jennings has got to wonder if he’ll watch end of any more games from the bench as the backcourt resembles a crowded elevator at quitting time. Oh, and the question remains how the deadline deal really made the Bucks any more capable of knocking off Miami or Indiana in the first round of the playoffs.
While everyone else is trying to figure out the strategy of the front office, all the Bucks are trying to do is win enough games to maybe catch Boston for the No. 7 seed.
Shocked? Only the guy who provided the electricity isn’t.
As the referees gathered ’round a TV monitor to review the final shot and some of his celebrating teammates returned to the floor to wait for an official ruling, Ellis was out the tunnel and gone without checking.
“I didn’t need to,” he said. “The buzzer went off when it was rolling around the rim. There was no need for me to come back out … I didn’t need [any] explanation.”
Despite all the coast-to-coast puzzlement at the trade deadline, apparently neither do the Bucks.