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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

No Bucking the Truth: This Season’s a Winner

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Six months ago, even optimists saw the Milwaukee Bucks as long shots for the NBA's eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot—the one that often doesn't require a winning record. After all, the Bucks were coming off three seasons in which they averaged 29 victories and 53 losses.

But coach Scott Skiles and his revamped team have worked wonders. With one game left in the regular season, they were No. 6 in the East and bound for a playoff matchup with Atlanta or Boston.

How did it happen? Andrew Bogut emerged as a top-notch center before suffering a season-ending injury this month; Brandon Jennings dazzled as a rookie point guard; new forwards Carlos Delfino and Ersan Ilyasova proved to be steady contributors; shooting guards Jerry Stackhouse and John Salmons arrived during the season and replaced the injured Michael Redd's scoring punch. Most of all, the Bucks bought into Skiles' credo of intensity and defense. The Observers join the applause.

Frank: The phrase "steaming into the playoffs" seems apt, given the Bucks' skirmishes with the Celtics on Saturday night.

Artie: "Big Baby" Davis got huffy with a hard foul by Kurt Thomas, then Stackhouse and Paul Pierce got tangled up, and amid the woofing and technical-foul calls Scott Skiles went ballistic and got tossed.

Frank: And in Boston's previous visit Davis nailed Jennings on a drive and he bounced up into Big Baby's face.

Artie: If these teams meet in the first round, it'll be very interesting. Rajon Rondo is a sneakily dirty player. Kevin Garnett didn't play Saturday but he's a big-time trash talker, and Pierce is right behind him. And you never know when Rasheed Wallace will erupt.

Frank: Whatever happens, Bucks fans have to smile. The headline on our preview said, "8 Would Be Great," but we really didn't expect it.

Artie: I've sure enjoyed watching this bunch. Different stars every night, but real steady production by almost everyone, ain’a?

Frank: The trade that brought Salmons in from Chicago was huge. Going into the final game, they were 21-8 since he arrived. But I think the turning point came a little before the trade. After their usual dismal western swing in January, they were drifting along at 19-25. But then they beat Dwyane Wade and the Heat in back-to-back games, and that was a real spark.

Artie: Now they've improved by almost 20 wins in two years under Skiles.

Frank: People naturally look at the offensive progress Bogut made, at Jennings' 55-point game early in the season, at Salmons' almost 20-point average as a Buck. But I think the biggest statistic is defensive. As our chart shows, they're allowing eight fewer points per game than in 2007-’08. That's vital, because offensively the Bucks are 22nd in the league in scoring (97.6 per game) and 29th in shooting percentage (.436).

Artie: But their offense is much more fluid. Nothing against Michael Redd personally, but one big reason is his absence.

Frank: For years his shooting was their crutch. This season it's not just that everyone on the floor can pass, but they look to move the ball for better shots.

Artie: With Jennings they have a true point guard who looks to distribute. Mo Williams and Ramon Sessions were "look to score first" guys.

Frank: And with Luke Ridnour playing so well, they have someone who can run things when Jennings is resting or struggling.

Artie: The key with Ridnour is that he's staying healthy. Another thing about Redd's absence: Salmons is a big improvement on defense at the "2" spot.

Frank: As for Bogut, one reason I think he emerged is that Skiles made a real commitment to running the offense through him. In the past the Bucks would get it down to him a couple of times and then forget about him.

Artie: Which was nutty, since he's such a good passer. Another thing: Bogut is finally getting help on the boards from Ilyasova. Boy, he has a nose for the ball! And so fundamentally sound in blocking guys out.

Frank: With Bogut injured, they probably won't get to the second round. And I know you believe the NBA will make sure Boston gets most of the calls.

Artie: David Stern will move heaven and earth to move the Celtics ahead.

Trevor Tremors

Frank: Last week I said we'd be rushing home from the Brewers' game Sunday to see the finish of the Masters. Good thing you noticed that the game was shifted to nighttime for ESPN.

Artie: Some great observer you are!

Frank: Well, the night game spared you from having to watch your least-favorite golfer, Phil Mickelson, don his third green jacket.

Artie: Just the thought had me nauseated. But to compensate, I now have a most-favorite Brewer—Casey McGehee, for hitting the ninth-inning homer that beat the Cardinals. Otherwise we might have been out there all night!

Frank: And I presume your least-favorite Brewer became Trevor Hoffman?

Artie: Friday night he blows the save with a home-run pitch and they lose. Sunday night he blows the save with two gopher balls. It's enough to make you think his vaunted change-up and whatever he calls his fastball are becoming the same pitch.

Frank: Our readers will have to take our word on this: Even before Hoffman came in, the Observers were asking why he should be used on this given night.

Artie: Of course it's the way managers have been operating for decades. You have a zillion-dollar closer, you use him in a save situation.

Frank: Even a "save on a silver platter" situation like Sunday night—a three-run lead with three outs to go. And I suppose Ken Macha was eager to have Hoffman put Friday night behind him.

Artie: But still, guys like Bill James question the whole concept of closers. Cripes, any of your relievers ought to be able to get three outs regardless of the inning. Also, why wouldn’t you go to your “ace” reliever in the seventh inning of a tie game rather than save him for a hypothetical last-inning situation?

Frank: Way back when, that was the method. But specialization evolved to the point where managers are programmed to use a certain guy for the seventh inning, another for the eighth and then the closer. And my feeling is that the more pitchers you use, the more likely that one will stink on that given night.

Artie: For Macha, it looks like the seventh is Todd Coffey's and the eighth is LaTroy Hawkins'. But Sunday night Macha baffled us by using Carlos Villanueva and Hawkins in the eighth—with a total of only 13 pitches!

Frank: Coffey finished the seventh, then was pinch-hit for. Villanueva gave up a hit to start the eighth, then got two outs—but Macha summoned Hawkins to face the No. 8 hitter, Brendan Ryan.

Artie: Who was hitting .118. Hawkins got Ryan on four pitches, but he wasn't good enough to hold the three-run lead in the ninth?

Frank: Ned Yost always said relievers needed to "understand their roles." But if the roles are so specific that they never pitch in the eighth or ninth, or never face right-handed hitters, might that not lead them to believe that they can't do those things?

Artie: Managers won't go to James' way of thinking, though, because the system is a comfort zone. "I used my eighth-inning guy and my situational lefty. I did what I was supposed to do."

Frank: When a closer gets hurt, the manager will sometimes declare "closer by committee," but they never stick with it. Until someone tries the James approach, there'll never be any data to indicate whether it'll work.