Sudden Impact: Part II
Bucks' veteran newcomers discuss seamless transition
By Truman Reed
|"We're just playing basketball," Jerry Stackhouse said. "It's great to be with a good group. The guys on this team are nice guys. We're winning and having fun." Photo: Gary Dineen/NBAE|
Back in mid-January, Jerry Stackhouse was at his home in Suwanee, Ga., enjoying quality time with his wife, Ramirra, sons Jaye and Antonio and daughter Alexis.
The 14-year National Basketball Association veteran hadn't played in an NBA game since February 21 of 2009, and his 2008-09 season was limited to 10 games by a foot injury that could have meant the end of his career.
He was maintaining his ties to basketball by coaching Jaye's team, working out with the team at nearby North Gwinnett High School and enjoying a much different life than the one he had experienced for the previous 14 years.
Still, Jerry Stackhouse the professional basketball player was wondering if he was leaving something on the table. NBA teams had begun wondering the same thing.
A month later, eight-year NBA veteran John Salmons, who would have celebrated his one-year anniversary with the Chicago Bulls the next day, was told club officials to remain at the team hotel on the night of February 17 while the rest of his team took on the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Bulls management was in the process of trading him.
At the same time, Royal Ivey and Primoz Brezec, who have a combined 12 seasons of NBA experience but have never reached the playoffs, were probably beginning to make alternate postseason plans again as their Philadelphia 76ers played out the final two months of the season outside of the playoff race.
And at that juncture of the season, it appeared the Milwaukee Bucks might be watching the playoffs, too, rather than playing in them. They were still in the race, but mired below the Eastern Conference's top eight teams.
What a difference a month can make.
As it turns out, all the aforementioned folks needed was each other.
As the Bucks team plane flew back to Milwaukee on the night of March 21, its passengers were savoring consecutive road victories over Sacramento and Denver. The team's record was 38-30 - fifth-best in the Eastern Conference. And Jerry Stackhouse, John Salmons, Royal Ivey and Primoz Brezec were all on board.
When the Bucks signed Stackhouse to a free-agent contract January 18, they were 16-23.
When they acquired Salmons, Ivey and Brezec in separate deals February 18, they were 24-28.
When they returned from Denver to Milwaukee this week, they were 22-7 since Stackhouse came aboard and 14-2 - 7-0 at home and an amazing 7-2 on the road -- since Salmons, Ivey and Brezec arrived.
When asked to account for the Bucks dramatic transformation since the four veterans' arrival, Stackhouse offered the simplest explanation.
"We're just playing basketball," he said. "It's great to be with a good group. The guys on this team are nice guys. We're winning and having fun. We're seeing the confidence grow. The team is on the rise, and we want to keep it rolling."
Salmons, meanwhile, didn't try to explain the team's success. He is too busy enjoying it and working to keep it going.
"I'll let God answer that, man," Salmons said with a smile. The University of Miami product played five games for the Bucks before he practiced with them for the first time, so he has had to rely a great deal on his instincts and those of his new teammates.
"I sat down with Coach Skiles the other day to go over some stuff," Salmons said. "We have a big playbook. The system is a little different offensive scheme than what I'm used to, but I'm playing hard and trying to be in the right place at the right time."
Stackhouse has enjoyed watching that work in progress.
"John's been great," Stackhouse said. "He's come in and he's just playing his game. Scott is keeping things simple for him and isn't putting too many complex sets in. He's using stuff that can take advantage of his strengths.
"Our game is throwing the ball in to `Bogues' (Andrew Bogut) and just playing out of that. When he gets double-teamed, we're moving the ball. John's great at ripping and going and being able to create. He knows how to play the game, so it's not a huge adjustment. I think people make too much of it. Everybody runs the same stuff in the NBA, the same sets, outside of a wrinkle here or there.
"We've got a good group of guys out there that get you in spots. It's not rocket science. When you get the ball, you just have to dance like you always have, and John's doing a great job of that."
Is he ever.
Through March 21 and his first 16 games with the Bucks, Salmons was averaging a team-best 19.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game, shooting .383 from three-point range and .867 from the free-throw line.
His scoring average was up better than five points per game from his numbers with the Bulls, compiled alongside teammates he had played with her nearly a year.
In just his seventh game in a Bucks uniform, Salmons scored 32 points against the Atlanta Hawks. He scored 20 or more points in a game seven times in his first 16 outings. And his presence has been an integral factor in Milwaukee's defensive improvement as well.
Stackhouse's impact has been both substantial and remarkable as well. After 28 contests, he was averaging 19.9 minutes, 7.9 points and shooting .363 from three-point range and .805 from the foul line. He has played as many as 32 minutes in a game and through March 21 had scored in double digits nine times, going for 20 on two of those occasions.
Remember, those numbers belong to a guy who was working out with high school players during the first few weeks of 2010. He put that in perspective after returning to NBA action January 20 against Toronto.
"I've been shooting the ball really well in drills," Stackhouse said. "I think it's just a matter of being on the move and getting up and down. I haven't really done that. I've worked out with a high school team. But high school and (Chris) Bosh, (Andrea) Bargnani and (Jose) Calderon and (Hedo) Turkoglu ... there's just a little bit of difference there.
"But I'll be fine. I'll find my spots and know I'll get some opportunities. With the players we've got, I don't have to try to force the issue. If I can command attention just from having the ball and do what I did tonight, I'll give opportunities to the other guys."
Stackhouse was right. He has been fine. And since he and Salmons and Ivey and Brezec entered the fold, the Bucks have been mighty fine, too.
Stackhouse and Salmons have appeared in a combined 79 playoff games during their years in the NBA. And they have never approached more than one of those at a time.
With the Bucks on course for their first playoff trip since 2006, they don't plan on changing their approach. And they know there is work to be done before the playoffs begin.
"We're not just trying to reach the playoffs; we're trying to move up in the standings," Salmons said. "We've got the opportunity to do that.
"We've just got to stay together, continue to grow. We can only get better."
Stackhouse feels the same way, and he plans to seize every moment of the ride.
"I love playing the game," he said. "Mother Nature or Father Time is going to make a coward out of all of us at some point, but God has blessed me to be able to still do it, and I want to do it for as long as I can. I'm not looking at this as a farewell tour. If this is an opportunity for me going forward, that's fine. If not, I've had a great career. I've played a long time.
"It's about not leaving anything on the table, man. As a player, that's how it is. I feel good. I don't know where this will take me; I'll just take it one day at a time. I know that's kind of cliche-ish, but that's where I'm at."
And make no mistake; Stackhouse is grateful to be where he is at.
"God has blessed me with a pretty good body and the mind-set to be able to continue to play basketball," he said. "I give all praise to him, man. That's where it lies. Without him, I wouldn't have been able to do any of this. None of this would have happened.
"So that's where it is for me."
Bucks fans are becoming increasingly grateful, too, that John Salmons and Jerry Stackhouse are where they are.