The Quest, Part II

The rewards of realization

It’s been said that the National Basketball Association Playoffs are an entirely different realm than the regular season.

For the first time, Larry Sanders and John Henson of the Milwaukee Bucks can attest to this first-hand.

Both Sanders, 24, and Henson, 22, recently experienced their first brush with playoff basketball during the Bucks’ Eastern Conference opening round series with the defending NBA champion Miami Heat.

Sanders, who just completed his third season as a pro, said the differences between the regular season and the playoffs were noticeable to him immediately.

“It’s harder,” Sanders said. “There’s a lot more emotion. You know it’s going to be intense. The regular season is done and in the bag, and it’s a new season. You want to give your best and play as hard as you can.”

Sanders experienced additional intensity and pride because the series began in Florida, where he was born and raised and played his high school basketball.

“My family and friends were watching,” he said. “You represent the name on the front and back of your jersey when you’re out there.

“Plus you’re on the national stage, which isn’t normal for us here in Milwaukee. So it was big. It was big for the organization, for our team and for each one of us individually.”

Sanders’ playoff career got off to a rocky start when he got into foul trouble early during the first game of the series and was limited to six points, five rebounds and no blocks in 18 minutes, 41 seconds of action. Miami outscored Milwaukee 58-42 in the second half en route to a 110-87 victory.

Sanders proved to be a quick learner, though. He responded with 14 points, six rebounds and a block in 28:20 in the second game of the series. The Bucks were competitive for three quarters this time before being outscored 30-21 in the final period on their way to a 98-86 loss.

The best outing of Sanders’ first playoff series came in Game 3. He scored 16 points on 7-of-10 field-goal shooting, snared a team-high 11 rebounds and blocked a shot in 34:51 as the Bucks fell 104-91. Sanders scored just seven points, but came up with 11 boards and three blocks in 31:06 as Milwaukee dropped Game 4 88-77.

The stint in the national spotlight was well-deserved for the 6-foot-11-inch, 235-pound center, who made dramatic strides during the regular season. He averaged career highs of 9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 27.3 minutes per outing, ranked second in the league to Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka in blocks per game with 2.83 and became the first Bucks player to block over 200 shots in a season since Elmore Smith accomplished the feat in 1975-76.

The Virginia Commonwealth University product finished third behind Indiana’s Paul George and New Orleans’ Greivis Vasquez in the NBA Most Improved Player balloting.

“I knew winning that award was going to be very difficult,” Sanders said. “There were so many players who played great this year compared to last year and the year before. It was an honor for me to even be mentioned in that category.”

Henson, selected by Milwaukee with the 14th overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft out of the University of North Carolina, didn’t receive nearly as much playing time as Sanders during his first visit to the playoffs, but he, too, valued the experience and did his best to contribute when called upon.

He had six points, five rebounds and two steals during a 20-minute stint in Game 1, went scoreless with two rebounds in Game 2 and was shut out in Games 3 and 4.

“The intensity is different,” Henson said when comparing the regular season to the playoffs. “The first half of the first game can be hard to get adjusted to. The second half, you respond. I didn’t get a lot of minutes, but I was ready when I got out there.”

Henson realized what the Bucks were up against, having to compete against Miami’s defending champions in an eight-versus-one seed first round series. But he didn’t allow himself to be intimidated.

“Judging by records and what they did last year, Miami is the best team, and it’s hard to have to open against the best team,” the 6-11, 220 forward/center said. “But the games aren’t played on paper. We just had to go out and play hard. That’s what I did.”

Sanders and Henson realize that participating in the playoffs was not only a step forward for them individually, but for the Bucks’ team and the franchise as well.

“I think it’s huge,” Sanders said. “We’re trying to start something here. We’re trying to start a tradition and build on it. I feel like I’m a piece of that.”

Henson agreed.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction for this franchise,” Henson said. “. For this team, we set a bunch of goals and making the playoffs was one of them, so that was good. Anytime you play in the postseason, it’s valuable experience for everyone, from the rookies to the older guys.”

Two of Sanders’ and Henson’s more experienced teammates concurred with their playoff perspectives.

“It was good,” said forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who played seven previous playoff games in 2010. “I think for any team, the chance to go to the playoffs is good. You get to play playoff basketball, where everything – the talent, the intensity – is higher. It’s fun. It’s great to be out there and feel that intensity.”

Forward Mike Dunleavy Jr. participated in five playoff games with the Indiana Pacers in 2011. He was a key figure in his first playoff tour with Milwaukee, totaling 16 points, six rebounds and five assists in Game 2, scoring 11 points in Game 3 and collecting 17 points and five boards in Game 4.

“You’ve got to play a certain way in the playoffs,” Dunleavy said. “You’ve got to know where the ball is supposed to go. There are quick decisions being made out there, and if you can’t process that real quick, you get caught.

“I think it was a good experience for everybody, especially for our young guys.”