The playoff race in the NBA’s Eastern Conference is nothing if not fluid, and once you concede the obvious top spot to the Miami Heat, it seems almost everything else is up for grabs. In that light, escaping the #8 playoff seed would be of paramount importance. It surely has to be considered a surprise that the Milwaukee Bucks have gotten on a four-game win streak against a good schedule and given themselves a puncher’s chance to do just that. The Bucks are still currently in eighth, but moving into striking distance of the seven-spot. TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary will focus on whether Milwaukee can actually get to #7—or higher—and if so, if they can pull off the supreme shocker and win their first playoff series since 2001.
Milwaukee currently sits on a 30-28 record. The current win streak has enabled them to pull away from the also-rans in the Eastern Conference field, and are a solid 6 ½ games up on a Toronto team that just started too late, and the Philadelphia 76ers, who have been a massive disappointment. On other side of the equation, the Bucks have nudged within 2 ½ games of Boston for the 7-spot. If that surprises you, given the Celtics have won 12 of their last 16, it actually fits into an overall context of the East tightening up from the 4-seed all the way down.
The Bucks are built around the backcourt. It started with Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings and then continued when the team added J.J. Redick at the trade deadline. Ellis and Jennings are prolific scorers, at 19 ppg each. Both players can create for others as well as themselves, and they combine for 13 assists a game. The acquisition of Redick was the perfect complement to the offense. Neither Ellis nor Jennings is a great three-point shooter, while Redick has a noted reputation as a long-range bomber. We should note that at 37 percent from behind the arc, it’s not as though Redick is the next coming of Reggie Miller, but he does give the Bucks a consistent outside shooter ,someone that Ellis or Jennings can kick it out to off dribble-penetration.
When the Bucks acquired Redick I’ll admit my first reaction was a snide comment on a podcast at Prime Sports Network that said he would fit right into a lineup of guards that were undersized and didn’t play defense. On an individual basis, I don’t necessarily back away from that, but I also have to concede that the overall statistical data doesn’t back up the notion that Milwaukee is a poor defensive team. In fact, they’re ninth in the NBA in defensive efficiency—a stat that adjusts raw point totals for pace. The Bucks rank ahead of Miami when it comes to their work on the defensive end.
The man who deserves the most credit for that is Larry Sanders. The 6’11” center is averaging nine rebounds and three blocks per game, including one for the highlight reels in the most recent game against Utah when he blocked a dunk. Sanders is only 24 years old, and while his offensive game still needs work, the defensive skills he brings to the table are exactly what this team needs right now. Flanking him on the frontcourt are Ersan Ilyasova, a modestly effective power forward (12 points/7 rebounds an ability to step out and hit a trey) and Mike Dunleavy, a veteran and good perimeter shooter. Depth is a problem, with Luc Richard Mbah Moute being inconsistent and rookie John Henson still having to beef up his lanky frame.
On February 23rd, Milwaukee concluded a stretch of three consecutive heartbreaking losses. They dropped consecutive games to Brooklyn, one of which saw Joe Johnson hit two big shots in the closing seconds for the Nets. Both times the Bucks wasted 30-plus point efforts from Jennings. Then they dropped a one-point home decision to Atlanta. It was a game the Bucks played pretty well overall, but the Hawks got insanely hot from three-point range. Ironically the unexpected barrage of treys was led by Devin Harris, who hit four of five—the irony is that Harris used to be a local hero when he played at Wisconsin.
With a record of 26-28, I won’t say the Bucks were in trouble as far as making the playoffs went, but it was a race to keep an eye. Toronto was starting to play better since the Rudy Gay trade, and the Bucks would have to play the Raptors after consecutive road games in the state of Texas. Everything was ripe for the best Toronto-Milwaukee race since the 1992 AL East battle.
It was Milwaukee who came up big at the crucial point in the schedule though. They forced twenty turnovers against Dallas and beat the Mavericks. Ellis hit a walk-off three-pointer to upset Houston. Then the game with Toronto went to overtime and the Bucks prevailed. Ilyasova delivered some of his best basketball, with 20 points/10 rebounds at Houston, and a 29/11 showing against Toronto. Then came a solid defensive effort in Monday’s one-point overtime win over Utah.
This has been a tumultuous year for the franchise. There was a coaching change mid-stream, as Jim Boylan replaced Scott Skiles. In fairness to Skiles, the team was 16-16 at his departure, so it’s not as though there’s been a dramatic turnaround since. Jennings was in trade rumors right up to the deadline. There’s even now a rumor that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would be interested in being the next coach. That would be an unlikely return for the Hall of Famer who began his NBA career in Milwaukee, won a title here in 1971 and then forced a trade to Los Angeles prior to the 1976 season.
Milwaukee’s now virtually certain playoff berth represents a modest victory for the franchise amidst all this. If they got themselves off the 8-spot and gave the fans a playoff series that would be truly competitive it would be a big victory. And actually winning a playoff round would be akin to winning a championship, at least at this point in the organization’s history. I still see a team that lacks depth on the frontcourt and can be exploited by bigger guards, and conclude that the likely end to the season is a four-game sweep against Miami. But with 24 games left, the Bucks have given the fans some legitimate hope that more could be in the works.