Bucks put playoff-clinching in perspective, direct focus forward

Players recognize Bogut's investment in team's achievement

By Truman Reed

Brandon Jennings
"I'm the point guard," Jennings said. "If you want to win, you've got to get the ball to the big guy. A point guard has to think that way." Photo: Gary Dineen/NBAE

Several of the Milwaukee Bucks did something out of character last week.

They looked back.

Many of us would have little reason to do that after visiting Chicago, but under the circumstances, nobody could blame the Bucks. And they were certainly entitled.

Milwaukee clinched its first trip to the National Basketball Association Playoffs since 2006 by winning a 79-74 grinder over the Chicago Bulls on April 6 at the United Center, overcoming 36-percent shooting with another one of those gritty defensive efforts that have yielded the seventh-fewest points allowed per game in the league.

The game was the first entire one the Bucks played since losing starting center Andrew Bogut for the balance of the season and the playoffs with a dislocated right elbow, sprained right wrist and broken right hand.

Milwaukee still had five regular-season games to play entering its April 7 home game against New Jersey, but several team members took time out before and after that contest - which resulted in a third consecutive win -- to put the Bucks clinching of a playoff berth into perspective.

"It's really exciting," Ersan Ilyasova said. "In camp and at the beginning of the season, people didn't believe in us. After we got off to a good start, some still didn't no matter what we did.

"We've proven them wrong, and we've got to keep playing like we have."

Dan Gadzuric, the second-longest tenured player on the Bucks roster, had seen action in just 27 of the team's first 77 games. But when opportunity knocked April 7, Gadzuric responded with an energetic five points and eight rebounds in 16 minutes, 44 seconds of action in the team's 108-89 victory over New Jersey.

Gadzuric was a member of the Bucks last playoff team in 2006, so the return trip will be a long-awaited one for him.

"For me, I've definitely been waiting for this opportunity for a long time," Gadzuric said. "It's hard when you don't make it. You get down. It's been a long time.

"It's such an uplifting feeling. I'm just going to keep trying to provide energy whenever I get the opportunity."

Gadzuric was grateful for the opportunity that came his way against New Jersey. He was asked how he felt afterward.

"Good, man," he said. "I love being out there. I've missed it. It's great to have the opportunity."

Brandon Jennings has not yet finished his first NBA season, but he, too, was thrilled to be involved in a playoff-clincher and help put the franchise back in the national eye.

"I'm happy for everyone in this room that people will be able to see the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs," he said. "A lot of people don't get to see us because we're not on national TV much.

"We can't be too excited about it, though. We still have to go out and keep working hard. When it's time to roll out the ball, you've got to play. Last night (April 6 in Chicago), we did a great job defensively. We showed what we can do.

"Now that we're in the playoffs, we've got to keep it going. I plan on making it every year."

Like Jennings, Jerry Stackhouse is in his first season with Milwaukee. He has been to the playoffs in seven previous seasons, but he is looking forward to representing the Bucks there in this, his 15th year in the NBA.

And Stackhouse said he and his teammates will have some extra motivation working for them for the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs that follow.

"We're playing for `Bogues,'" Stackhouse said. "We obviously play for ourselves, our families and the organization, but he was playing at an all-league level. It's a shame that he won't be able to play in the playoffs, and we all have to step it up without him.

"The bottom line is that it's going to be all about defense."

Stackhouse wasn't the only Buck who recognized what a great deal Bogut invested in getting the Bucks back into the playoffs.

"He's been our key," Kurt Thomas said. "Our system's been inside-out. The last two and a half months, he was playing at an unbelievable level - an All-Star level."

Gadzuric, one of Bogut's longest-running teammates, agreed.

"You hate to see an injury like that happen," Gadzuric said. "He did a lot of work to put us in the position we're in.

"All we can do is keep working as hard as we can and playing as well as we can. He seems to be upbeat and positive."

Ilyasova has witnessed Bogut's determination to make Milwaukee a playoff team as well.

"He's been one of the main guys on the team," he said, "He's such a hard worker. We were drafted in the same year, and we made the playoffs that year. After that, we didn't until this year. He's played great defense especially.

"We have to be more aggressive on defense like we were against Chicago (in the April 6 win at the United Center). Everybody's got to give even more now and play their best basketball. "

Jennings and Bogut developed into one of the NBA's better pick-and-roll tandems during their first season together. The rookie quickly understood that in order for the team to begin climbing in the standings, the 7-footer had to get the basketball.

"At first, I didn't know much about him," Jennings said. "I kept hearing he was really good. He's had a heck of a year. He should still get the most-improved player award. I'm really happy for him because a lot of people have doubted him. I could tell in his attitude that he was determined to prove them wrong."

The 20-year-old point guard's commitment to getting Bogut the ball has had a great deal to do with the emergence of both Bogut and the Bucks.

"I'm the point guard," Jennings said. "If you want to win, you've got to get the ball to the big guy. A point guard has to think that way."

Thomas has been impressed at how the Bucks have responded without the rangy Aussie in the middle, and he speaks from that perspective, having averaged 30 minutes per game in the post since Bogut went down.

"We know we have to be solid on defense all the time," Thomas said. "Our defense is our backbone. We know that. I think we've adjusted well without `Bogues.'

"We continue to roll on."

Skiles will make sure the Bucks keep their focus directed forward.

"We've tried all along not to look behind us and say, `Somebody's two games behind us. We've got to stay in front,'" Skiles said. "We just look at the game in front of us and do everything we can to win that game.

"The guys are focused on the games. Every time these guys have had an opportunity to have a losing streak, or tip over a little bit, they've been able to battle back."