The Quest

Part I: The drive for the clincher

The intentions were made clear back in October when the Milwaukee Bucks opened training camp.

“For me, it’s more focus on winning. Whatever it takes for me to get this team to that level of being a playoff team, I’m willing to do it.” ­– guard Monta Ellis

“Last year, I enjoyed the season – everything until the last couple days when we were out of the playoffs. The key for this team is to get in and take the next step, compete and hopefully do some damage.” – forward Mike Dunleavy Jr.

“We expect to have a good season. We expect to be a playoff team. That’s the goal.” – General Manager John Hammond

The Bucks’ collective goal for the 2012-13 season was making the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

The following account follows their pursuit of that goal and continues with the results:

Milwaukee’s decisive push for the playoffs began March 28 when it defeated the Los Angeles Lakers for the second time in as many seasons at the BMO Harris Bradley Center 113-103 The matchup paired the teams holding the eighth positions in the NBA’s divisional playoff races.

Following a 109-99 loss to Oklahoma City on March 30, the Bucks returned to their home court two nights later and posted a resounding 131-102 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats. The output was the highest in a single game for Milwaukee since a 133-point outburst against the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 21, 2009.

Two team members who stepped up significantly in the victory over the Lakers were veteran forward/guard Marquis Daniels and forward/center Larry Sanders.

Daniels, who saw action in only three games and scored just two points during February, drew a starting assignment against the Lakers and responded with 16 points –two off his season high – and three steals, and helped frustrate Kobe Bryant into a 6-for-17 shooting performance and six turnovers during a 30-minute stint.

“Those type of players, you’ve just got to try to make it tough for them,” Daniels said. “You never really know what they’re going to do. Watching film helps some, but more than anything, you’ve just got to be ready for anything. Defense is something you’ve got to want to do; it’s not a matter of preparing or watching film. You can try to take away some of their plays, but once a guy gets the ball, you don’t really know what he’s going to do. You just have to try to make things difficult for him.

“I like a challenge. Kobe’s one of the best players in the league, if not the best. This was a very important game for us.”

Bucks Head Coach Jim Boylan appreciated Daniels’ effort.

“Marquis has been playing well for us,” Boylan said. “It’s tough when you’ve been sitting on the bench for a long time. It’s tough to get our rhythm going a little bit. We saw what he can bring to the table from a defensive standpoint, plus he made some plays and made some shots.

“The difference in the game for us was trying to keep Kobe in check as much as we could keep him in check. Marquis made him work. He has a big body, he’s strong, and he leaned on him. Marquis did a great job. You always have to try to keep Kobe busy defensively and see if you can wear him down a little bit.”

Sanders, meanwhile, continued to make a strong pitch for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award, scoring a career-high 21 points and 13 rebounds and limiting Lakers center Dwight Howard to 15 points.

“I’ve thought about that (the award) every now and then, but I’m not really into awards,” Sanders said. “I guess they’re great individual gifts, but my mind’s on the team.”

Sanders exceeded his career high in the rout of Charlotte with 24 points and ripped down another 13 rebounds in that contest.

“I’ve just been trying to stay active offensively,” Sanders said. “My teammates are doing a great job of finding me down there. They’re trusting me to finish plays and shoot the ball when I’m open.”

“I’ve been working on that hook shot. I want to become really consistent with it, so I’m going to keep working on it. I want to do more things offensively. The name of the game in basketball is repetition. The harder you work and the more you put into it, the better you get. I’ve done that ever since I started playing basketball. I’m not going to stop.”

Forward Ersan Ilyasova and guard J.J. Redick complemented Sanders’ 24 points with respective outings of 22 and 20 points. Guard Monta Ellis scored 19 points and distributed a career-high 14 assists, backcourt partner Brandon Jennings had 19 points and forward Mike Dunleavy pitched in 15 off the bench.

The Bucks accumulated 32 assists.

“Our approach before the game was to come out with energy,” Ilyasova said. “That’s what we did. We played tremendous offensively. We shot the ball at a high percentage. We shared the ball and got a lot of assists. We can be better defensively.”

“It’s fun to be out there when everybody’s sharing the ball. And it’s always fun to win. Everyone enjoys the game more. We have to do everything we do out there for a reason. Every game counts. We’ve got to mean business.”

Boylan liked what his team achieved.

“It’s not very often that we’ve been able to win by double digits,” he said. “It was nice to be able to do that.

“We want to play our game – getting up and down. That begins with your defense and rebounding. You’ve got to get stops and rebound and then get out and try to take advantage of what I feel we do best.”

Boylan credited Ellis for setting a tone at both ends of the court.

“Monta’s intensity level was extremely high,” Boylan said. “He’s playing at a very high level and doing a lot of things out there. When he’s playing like that, he’s making everybody better.

“He’s actively defending his man, he’s creating turnovers, he’s getting out in the open floor and finding people and he’s getting to the rim. He’s really been unbelievable.”

The Bucks clinched a playoff berth April 6 when they defeated Toronto 100-83 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center while Philadelphia  -- their closest pursuer – lost and was eliminated from playoff contention.

"It feels great," said Ellis, who led the Bucks with 22 points, nine assists and six steals. "We needed this game tonight. We knew how big it was for us. Now we can start getting focused on finishing the season, trying to go in a positive direction.”

Sanders, who collected 12 points, nine rebounds and six blocked shots in the game, echoed Ellis’ sentiments on making the playoffs.

"It's what we've been working for all year," he said. "It was one of our main goals at the beginning of the season. To finally accomplish that is great.”

Visit Bucks.com again soon for the continuation of this series.