Crowded House Inspires Bucks
Players amazed by fans' frenzy, local playoff buzz
By Truman Reed
Those members of the National Basketball Association community who have monitored the Milwaukee Bucks' first appearance in the NBA Playoffs since 2006 have been impressed with their focus, their tenacity, their decision-making and their poise.
Since falling behind the Atlanta Hawks in the teams' opening-round series 2-0, the Bucks have certainly earned that respect. Their relentlessness has earned them three consecutive wins and a one-game edge heading back to Milwaukee for Game 6 Friday night.
Because the Bucks have been so riveted on the task in front of them, and because their coach demands that, and because they have enough playoff-tested veterans on their roster to keep them grounded, one might guess that they have tuned out the buzz that has been building around them.
Such a guess, though, would be wrong.
Milwaukee not only sold out the first two home dates of its seven-game series with Atlanta, but raised the roof of the Bradley Center for the first time since the team's Eastern Conference Finals run of 2001.
The fans' response was most definitely not lost upon the players - playoff veterans and first-timers alike.
Luke Ridnour, back in the playoffs for the first time since his 11-game stint with the Seattle SuperSonics in 2005, didn't know quite what to expect when the Bucks took their home court for Game 3 of the Atlanta series.
But he had a hunch, and it was confirmed and then some.
"The last two months, the buzz around town has really picked up," Ridnour said. "Everyone's been more into it, saying, `Good luck,' `keep it going,' and all that stuff. I would say it's definitely picked up.
"Monday's crowd was by far the best, by far the loudest and most into it. And rightfully so, because it was the first playoff game that we've been in during the two years I've been here. It was definitely a lot of fun."
Ridnour sensed the difference immediately.
"It was cool," he said. "It was like the whole crowd was Squad 6. It seemed like they were all on the same page and loud from the very time we stepped onto the floor until the end. It was huge advantage."
Ridnour wasn't just blowing smoke, either. He has seen what a difference a home-court advantage can make even at the game's highest level.
"If you look at the history of the home-court advantage, it's obviously huge," Ridnour said. "You're comfortable and your crowd brings that energy that's really that sixth man that you need.
"That first game here, the crowd really got us going. We're really going to need that for the rest of these playoffs."
Kurt Thomas brought 82 games of playoff experience to Milwaukee, his seventh NBA team.
Thrust into the role of starting center following Andrew Bogut's season-ending injury, the 37-year-old Thomas has been impressed at the size and volume of the Bradley Center playoff audiences.
"The crowd's been incredible," he said. "They've been out there, along with Squad 6, chanting and keeping us in the games.
"They help us keep our heads up, and we need them to continue to do that to help us get through these playoffs."
Even the low-key John Salmons, one of the catalysts of the Bucks' emergence, has been inspired by the BC playoff audiences.
"The crowd's been great," Salmons said with a smile and a nod. "They've really brought a lot of energy. When Atlanta made that push in the third quarter to cut the lead down a bit (in Game 4), the crowd was into it.
"That gave us the confidence and the energy and the poise to stay with it."
The roar of the playoff crowd has been a welcome one for Charlie Bell, who has embraced Milwaukee since his arrival here in 2005.
"It gives you chills," Bell said. "In my five years here, even in the playoffs in my first year here, it wasn't like this. I think just the buzz around the whole city and that night at the game, it was incredible.
"Squad 6 is like the leader. Usually during the regular season, it was just Squad 6, but now, it's like the whole crowd is chipping in with every chant and every cheer. They all had the red on. It was big. It definitely gave us a nice energy boost. It was good to be home."
Like Ridnour, Bell said no one should underestimate what an asset a frenzied home crowd can be to the team.
"A lot of people take it for granted," he said. "They don't understand the home-court advantage. Everywhere you go, the courts are the same, the hoops are 10 feet and the basketballs are the same size. But the energy the crowd gives us makes such a difference.
"When we played in Atlanta, the Hawks' fans give them energy. Our fans did the same thing here, and it was key for us to go out and win. We came out with a lot of energy early. The guys played hard. Once you start making shots early, the crowd gets into it and it just builds. The excitement just builds."
Bell has seen Bucks Fever strike the community this season, too.
"It's definitely been different all throughout the year, since we`ve been winning and things have been going well," he said. "The excitement started to pick up. People started talking playoffs.
"I could be in the grocery store looking at apples, and people would come by and say, `Good luck in the playoffs.' It's been big. Today when I was at the post office, people were telling me, `Good luck tonight.' A lot of people don't realize how excited the fans are. You see a lot more people with Bucks gear on. People are so happy to be a part of it all."
Ersan Ilyasova has certainly enjoyed his part in it all. He didn't play his first NBA game until the year after the Bucks last reached the playoffs, and spent the past two seasons playing in Europe before re-signing with Milwaukee last summer.
The fans' reception when the series swung back to Milwaukee made quite an impression on the young Turk.
"It was great," Ilyasova said. "It was really exciting. I enjoyed playing basketball in front of those fans. They've supported us the whole season, but the playoffs have been different. It's been a different feeling for everybody who's on the court. We feel more pumped-up. We know the fans are behind us and we know for sure we have a home-court advantage."
Ilyasova compared the Bradley Center buzz to what he experienced in Spain and the surrounding countries the past two seasons.
"Playing overseas, the crowds are kind of crazy there," he said. "Most of the fans over there are soccer fans and there are big rivalries. Comparing our playoff crowd to those, though, it was really close. They were both really good experiences."
"Our crowd really makes us feel great to be playing at home. We know they're going to be behind us."
Ilyasova, too, says the crowd support makes a difference to the players on the court.
"Yeah, it does," he said. "We all feel really pumped-up. When the other team goes on offense, the fans are booing so loudly that it makes it hard for them to communicate in those situations. It's difficult to play against fans like ours. From our standpoint, it makes us much more comfortable."
Ilyasova has enjoyed the excitement that has been building around town, too.
"Definitely this year, you see and hear a lot more people who care about the Bucks," he said. "We've had a really good season and made the playoffs, and that's what people expect from us.
"The fans have really supported us and shown that they love winning basketball."
Second-year forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is enjoying his first brush with the playoffs.
"We're one of those few teams that's still playing," he said. "This is my first experience with the playoffs, and I'm really enjoying it. I'm just soaking it all in right now, trying to figure out what it's all about."
Mbah a Moute has enjoyed watching the transformation of the Milwaukee crowds.
"They've been a big part of our success," he said. "Early on, they got behind us and brought that energy and it helped our energy. It was pretty good."
Brandon Jennings hasn't played like the rookie that he is in his first playoff stint, but he has taken the time to look up and appreciate what is around him.
"I feel like the crowd set the tone," Jennings said. "They're the ones who get us going. They're real loud. I can't wait to get back here Friday and hopefully finish up the series. The crowd has been great these last two games.
"It's been exciting. I've been here all year and this is the loudest I've ever heard the Bradley Center."
Bell had been yearning for the day when he could experience a playoff basketball buzz in Milwaukee.
He was thrilled when that day arrived, and the thrill hasn't worn off.
"Mike Redd was here when they went to the playoffs with Ray Allen and that group," Bell said. "He was telling me how rowdy it was here back then and I was like, `Really?' It was hard to fathom that it was like that, especially with the way it's been the last couple of years.
"A lot of that comes with winning. Once you start to win, people get more excited and want to spend their money to come out and see us. I'm just enjoying it. I've been here a long time, and to see things come full-circle, it's just great. I think a lot of people are really starting to recognize the city of Milwaukee and our franchise now."