Posted Apr 10 2012 11:40AM
MILWAUKEE -- One member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, on the bench in the late minutes and kicking off his sneakers the way Uncle Frank loosens his belt at the end of every Thanksgiving dinner, remarked to no one in particular: "They're fighting for the eighth spot, huh?"
It was a comment rather than a question, but the Milwaukee Bucks could have fooled a lot of people Monday night at Bradley Center. They trailed wire-to-wire and lost by 20. They had neither defense at the rim nor answers out on the floor for Oklahoma City before it was too late -- and it was too late early.
The Thunder attacked Milwaukee's middle as if the Bucks had traded Andrew Bogut for a garden gnome, by the work inside of its starting frontcourt anyway. And the Western Conference powerhouse unleashed Russell Westbrook from the jump, his eyes growing big as Brandon Jennings flitted about him, then backpedaled toward the basket when Westbrook posted up. Eventually Bucks coach Scott Skiles tried a double-team on those, thwarted immediately when Westbrook found Serge Ibaka gapingly open for a slam.
Ibaka swatted five shots, Kevin Durant picked his spots and the team supposedly fighting for its postseason life began to clear its bench even before the visitors with the fat lead coming off the back-to-back. Live to fight another day, Skiles seemed to say with his substitutions (with the exception of Luc Mbah a Moute, who was gimping around near the end because Larry Sanders had gotten two of Milwaukee's uncool five technicals).
"If you're going to compete against a team like that, just to be competitive, you've got to come with a ton of energy," Skiles said. "You have to hold your own on the glass. You've got to be at least close in the free-throw battle. You've got to play pretty good defense. And you've got to shoot a pretty good percentage. You can't turn the ball over and you have to be physical. We really didn't get any of those things accomplished."
So, disappointing loss or a snapshot of where the Bucks are at, relative to an elite team such as OKC? Said Skiles: "Uh ... both."
Such is life for teams on the cusp of playoff qualification, who too often have more in common with those below them than those above them. Milwaukee (28-29) has nine games left to grab the seventh or eighth seed in the East. Five at home, four away. Five against foes at or above .500. Three back-to-backs, same as Philadelphia and New York. And they get one game each against the teams they're chasing, beginning with the Knicks Wednesday night at Bradley Center.
If everything goes right -- and there are legitimate doubts that it will, based on the Bucks' 7-20 record against winning teams -- their reward will be getting to face something similar to what they got Monday: A beatdown by the Chicago Bulls or the Miami Heat in as many as seven games but more likely four or five. If it's the latter, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will bring their own mini-tramps as they tag-team endless breakouts. If it's the former, the Bucks will feel like they're playing the entire series, for a long as it lasts, on the road, the way Bulls fans flood their BC zone.
How's that for a brass ring? Maybe ninth place, a ball in the drum and a seat on the set of the draft lottery isn't the consolation prize after all.
"No," Milwaukee general manager John Hammond said. "If you can get in, you always want to get in. First of all, you don't know how [well] you'll be playing when the playoffs start. And then you don't know about the other team -- what if one of their main guys gets hurt right at the end?"
It's an annual debate for a handful of teams and their fans each spring. Head for safe harbor and an admittedly measly 1.7 percent chance at snagging the best available amateur player in June (think Chicago and Derrick Rose)? Or hitch up your shorts, set your jaw and get pounded in a preliminary round by a contender with far greater ambitions. And talent. And experience. And generally size. And, and, and.
Certainly, it's not the money. The top six finishers in each conference get bonus checks for landing that high but for the seventh- or eighth-seeded teams, there is only a $194,016 lump sum for participating in the first round. Divvy that up however many ways an organization chooses, spread it over five or six games and clearly guys are taking serious pay cuts in the postseason. Heck, 17 NBA players make more than $194,016 per game.
Still, just getting in has its own rewards, as unpleasant and humbling as they might be.
"I know the teams I've been on, if you have a chance to make the playoffs, you want to make it," Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. "You don't care if you're going to play the No. 1 seed. You never know, [an upset] has happened before. But it gives you momentum going into the next season and for us, we had a young team. Making it at that stage [in 2010], it was a big boost."
It's hard to remember now, maybe, but it was only two years ago that the Thunder reached the postseason for the first time. They had finished 23-59 in 2008-09, Sam Presti's master plan germinating, before they shot to 50-32 and the eighth spot the following spring. They lost in six games to the Lakers, an "opportunity" Brooks treasures to this day.
"It was important to get in because as a young team, there's always a first time to get in and you have to get that out of your way," he said. "And it was important playing the Lakers -- not only did we get in, we played one of the best teams, a physical team, a team that gives you a lot of problems with their bigs and Kobe [Bryant] and their organization's history.
"To play in L.A., Game 1, Game 2. Come back home, win those games. Get our butts kicked in Game 5. ... They gave us everything they had -- they beat us in Game 6 basically on a last-second tip by [Pau] Gasol. Game. I thought that set the table for us going into next year. It made us focus on the little things the Lakers did to us.
"I was able to not tell them, I was able to show them from the Lakers series."
That's why, looking back, Brooks no longer holds against Durant that he promised a playoff berth on the heels of that 23-victory season. "I wanted to put a muzzle on him but he said it," Brooks said. "I give him all the credit."
The Bucks are a little different. They're a team formed and re-formed on the fly, with Monta Ellis and Epke Udoh on board for less than a month. This season began with the playoffs in mind, sure, but with Bogut and Stephen Jackson as alleged key pieces. It's a different team now that needs a training camp, period, never mind the seasoning and bonding of a playoff smack-around.
"I suppose it's going to take some time to get Monta in the system and learn how to play with those guys," Durant said. "I'm glad we're playing them at this time, because next year, they're going ot be a lot to deal with."
Ellis and Jennings shot a combined 9-of-24 against the Thunder for 22 points, about what each needs to be scoring by himself. Drew Gooden continues to overachieve this season but he shouldn't be the starting center for a legitmate playoff team. It's not clear how much overall "us" there is in Milwaukee's locker room, not compared to the nurtured-and-watered Thunder roster.
Skiles knows that it's unpredictable. "We made the playoffs two years ago and had a really nice year, but came back the following year with not the proper attitude," he said. "We didn't have the proper preparation. Brandon's even talked about that himself, for his own approach.
"You want both [the chance now and the experience for later]. Whether they get into a game or not, you'd like a Tobias [Harris] and a Jon Leuer to see playoff games. You'd like Brandon to go through another series -- we don't have a ton of playoff games in [that locker room]. The two teams we look right now we could be possibly facing, those would be very intense series. So it would be good for our guys to go through that."
Just like, uh, it was good for them to go through Monday.
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