Bucks Fly Under the Radar into Playoffs
Somewhere in between the Atlanta Hawks’ domination and handful of teams fighting for the eighth seed, the Milwaukee Bucks quietly locked in the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference.
After a 15-win campaign last season, the Bucks went 41-41 under their new head coach Jason Kidd. Despite losing Jabari Parker to a torn ACL in December, trading Brandon Knight at the deadline and waiving Larry Sanders shortly after, the team managed to establish a .500 record for the first time since 2010.
No one on the Bucks is averaging more than 15 points, their leading rebounder Zaza Pachulia grabs just under seven boards and their point guard Michael Carter-Williams dishes less than six assists per game. As they head into the postseason against the third-seeded Chicago Bulls, this young team is prepared to battle by committee.
“We’re versatile,” said O.J. Mayo. “We’ve got a kid who’s 6’11, plays the one through four. We have a 6’7 point guard who can play one through three, two guards who can play two through four, fours who can play three and two sometimes. We’ve got guys who can do just about everything. We’re all basketball players. It doesn’t matter where you put us on the floor. We’re going to try to find our ways to be effective.”
Regardless of who is at which position on the floor, every player follows the same objective set early into training camp. Kidd, who left the Brooklyn Nets to coach the Bucks last summer, delivered a message to his new team early on.
“I think it’s all about the coach,” said Giannis Antetokounmpo, who notes that Kidd green lights them to call their own plays on the court. “From the first day, J-Kidd told [us] he didn’t care if we were the last team or the best team in the league, we just every game had to play hard. I think we’ve done a great job of that.”
Ersan Ilyasova, who has played his entire career with the Bucks, noticed a change into the team before the regular season began. They shrugged off previous records, determined to set their own tone.
“Last year was disappointing,” Ilyasova said. “When you come from a season like that, obviously expectations are not that high. But as soon as training camp started and we met each other, everybody had in our minds the goal was to become a playoff team. Obviously it’s not easy to win in the NBA. We always compete. That’s one of the things Kidd tried to teach us — never give up.”
For nearly the first two months of the season, the Bucks were bolstered by rookie Parker. The second overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft was averaging 12.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game before he suffered a torn left ACL in mid-December against the Phoenix Suns.
At the time, the Bucks were in the opener of a four-game West Coast road trip, with the Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Clippers ahead. That night, they beat the Suns on a buzzer-beating three. They also beat the Kings, and competed against the other two opponents. Jared Dudley remembers that stretch as pivotal for the season.
“I think the key moment for us was when Jabari tore his ACL,” he said. “Guys were down and that was a crucial West Coast road trip. Khris Middleton hit the game-winning shot, carried that over and beat Sacramento. When you go out West, if you don’t win any games you can get steamrolled. Going .500 on that trip gave us our confidence. We wondered, ‘Could we play without [Jabari]?’ And that showed we could.”
In addition to losing Parker, the Bucks were also without Sanders (7.3 points, 6.1 rebounds) for most of the season. He appeared in 27 games, his last on December 23, and was bought out in February following violations of the NBA’s anti-drug program.
That month the Bucks traded their leading scorer, Knight, to the Phoenix Suns in a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers to acquire Carter-Williams. The team worked to find rhythm with a new roster two months shy of the postseason. With a schedule packed with back-to-backs after the deadline, they had to learn on the fly. The Bucks ran into losing streaks along the way, including a six-game skid in March, and dropped below .500.
“We were trying to find ourselves,” said Dudley. “It’s tough. We lost Brandon Knight and brought in three new guys. We play everybody and we couldn’t even practice. Our rhythm and chemistry [were off], we had injuries … We’re slowly finishing out strong. Once Michael started playing better (18.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.3 boards in April), once Khris took that role of ‘the guy,’ (16.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.1 since the All-Star Break) we kind of fed off them. Then our bench was like, ‘We’ve got to pick it up.’”
This weekend, the Bucks will open their first round series on the road in Chicago. It is far cry from where the former lottery-bound team was a year ago.
“I know nobody was expecting us to not only make the playoffs, but even be close to the playoff picture,” said Pachulia. “We’re playing hard, improving, progressing every game, winning games, playing hard offensively and defensively as well. There is definitely a future here. We’ll take being the underdog and play hard. We put ourselves in the situation to be in the playoffs and hopefully we’ll be able to go all the way.”
Raptors Wearing a Chip on Their Shoulders
Last year, the Toronto Raptors’ postseason came down to the wire – the final shot of Game 7. They came out on the losing end to the Brooklyn Nets in the first round as Paul Pierce blocked Kyle Lowry’s attempted game winner.
This time, the Raptors are looking to go deeper in the playoffs with a focused attack as they take on the Washington Wizards.
“We learned every possession matters,” Terrence Ross told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a long game, more mental than physical. It is hard, but you’ve got to focus and concentrate. You have to be engaged and the rest will take care of itself.”
The Raptors haven’t forgotten about how last season ended. They will bring an edge into the playoffs as they look to overcome the previous first round exit.
“We’re always going to play with a chip on our shoulder and we’re going to play with grit,” said Ross. “No matter what’s happening on the court, we’re always going to play hard. That chip is what motivates us to do better. It comes from the previous seasons, all the times we didn’t do what we were supposed to do. We have another chance to make up for all the things we didn’t do right.”
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