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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Thrill of 'Swish' and the Agony of 'Clang'

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For all the talk of strategy and schemes, intelligence and intensity, basketball comes down to this: how often, and for whom, the ball goes through the hoop. And that involves micro-measures of angle, arc and velocity—which sometimes add up to luck.

An overly strong shot hits the glass right and banks home to give Wisconsin a big road win. A soft follow-up slides off the rim and gives UW-Milwaukee the chance to complete a remarkable journey to the top of its league. And then there's a professional team whose shots have spent four months avoiding the nets far too consistently...


Frank:
What a letdown the Bucks' season is. Last week, as usual, it was a tiny step forward, beating Minnesota at home, and two steps back with losses at New York and to the Bulls. And Chicago fans made the Bradley Center sound like it was the United Center.

Artie:
Who can blame local fans if they're opting out? After all the momentum and energy of last year's winning record, the Bucks went into this week fourteen flippin' games under .500 with 24 to play.

Frank:
Four games behind Indiana for the last playoff spot, and with Charlotte in between.

Artie:
They turned the tide with the fans a year ago, gave them that glimmer of progress, but now it's gone. And why?

Frank:
How about being dead-last in the NBA in scoring and shooting percentage?

Artie:
Any team has nights when the shots don't fall, but this has been a theme, right up to 38% shooting Saturday night. They should change their name to the Milwaukee Trolley; their shots go "clang, clang, clang," ain'a?

Frank:
And Bango becomes Clango. Remember the San Francisco Warriors uniforms of the '60s that read "The City"? The numbers on the back were inside a cable car. Golden State rarely wears those throwbacks; maybe the Bucks can buy 'em cheap.

Artie:
Besides the constant brick-laying, they've had key guys injured at different times, which hurt the blending of new players on the court. But I've gotta think there's a problem with the personal chemistry, too.

Frank:
Brandon Jennings' comments after the Bulls game were striking. One Journal Sentinel quote was this: "I'm not the go-to guy like I was last year. When I get the ball I've got to do something with it because I know I won't get it back."

Artie:
And why should you, young man? You're shooting 37%!

Frank:
Well, 37% was where Jennings' shooting ended up last season. But John Salmons is down to 39% after shooting 47% with Milwaukee last season.

Artie:
He was 5 for 16 against the Bulls. That ain't what the Bucks re-signed him for.

Frank:
Corey Maggette is under 45% after shooting almost 52% last year at Golden State. Andrew Bogut was at 52% a year ago, but he's down to 48%.

Artie:
And struggling to do it. It's obvious he hasn't recovered from those terrible injuries last spring to his right arm.

Frank:
He's grimacing in every game. He's taking lefty hooks, too, but that's his "off" hand.

Artie:
Plus the defense knows his trouble, which makes him easier to defend. Last year the offense keyed through Bogut. Not now—when Maggette's on the court, he's the guy who starts things.

Frank:
There have been earlier hints of discord. A few weeks ago Bogut talked about everyone needing to be professional "on and off the court."

Artie:
He included himself, but clearly it was aimed at somebody, or maybe two guys.

Frank:
And a couple of months ago Maggette talked about his playing time, couching it in terms of "I just do what they tell me" but also saying that he didn't understand what was going on and felt under-used.

Artie:
Speaking of under-used, Chris Douglas-Roberts, who's had some pretty nice games, didn't play at all against Chicago—his fifth straight game of getting splinters. Scott Skiles must be seeing something he doesn't like.

Frank:
A few 50% shooting games might perk up the chemistry.

Artie:
It was a pleasure to watch Carmelo Anthony the other night, even though he was beating the Bucks. The guy sure can score! There aren't many, especially at his size, who can hit the mid-range jumpers he does. The kind Big Dog Robinson would hit.

Frank:
Or, going back a ways, Bob Dandridge or Junior Bridgeman.

Artie:
Bring 'em all back!

Dance Cards for Three?

Frank: At least things are going well in college hoops for the local fans.

Artie:
UWM's amazing surge to the top of the Horizon League and a shot at the NCAA tournament. Marquette a likely NCAA pick with a winning record in the Big East. And Wisconsin still in the hunt for a share of the Big Ten title. That was a great win at Michigan!

Frank:
I'm afraid my old MU loyalties came out when Josh Gasser made the winning three-pointer. I yelled, "Banking it in? That's bogus!"

Artie:
Deal with it. Like Bo Ryan said, they have to count it if it goes through the hoop.

Frank:
Then I calmed down and thought, "Well, I guess UW fans felt the same way in February of '74 when Maurice Lucas made his long shot at the buzzer and Al McGuire climbed on the scorer's table at the Milwaukee Arena.

Artie:
Let's note that Bo stayed on the floor. Here's a huge stat: The Badgers are making almost 83% of their free throws, with a shot at setting an all-time NCAA record! Boy, does that come in handy at tournament time.

Frank:
If the Badgers are leading at crunch time, opponents can't be optimistic about the "foul and hope they miss" strategy.

Artie:
Marquette, at about 70% from the line, will be in more jeopardy.

Frank:
Now we come to "Milwaukee," as the Panthers are known these days.

Artie:
I'm completely impressed with what they've done. Nine straight conference wins to tie for the title, and no one who saw them in December and early January would have predicted it.

Frank:
Their two games against Cleveland State are perfect illustrations of how plain ol' shooting dictates everything.

Artie:
In December at home the Panthers looked like an eighth-grade team against high-school all-stars.

Frank:
That night Cleveland State shot 64%—not just overall, but in three-pointers: 14 for 22! And the Panthers shot 30% overall.

Artie:
Thanks to some smothering defense.

Frank:
True, defense always impacts shooting. But in most games both teams get their share of good looks, and it comes down to who succeeds more. Anyway, last week in Cleveland the Panthers shot 57% overall, and this time Cleveland State made 10 fewer long ones, 4 for 21. There's your game.

Artie:
There's something else.

Frank:
Those screaming-yellow shoes?

Artie:
A terrific coaching job by Rob Jeter.

Frank:
He clearly got them to believe in themselves. And maybe the near-miss by Youngstown State that allowed them to win in overtime might convince them they're destined to win the league tournament.

Artie:
Top seeding puts them in the semis and playing at home. Two more wins and it's NCAA time!



Fickle Finger of Irate

Frank: Hey, speaking of Maurice Lucas' big shot, there's an interesting journalistic story attached. Remember the photo of McGuire on the scorer's table?

Artie:
Who could forget it?

Frank:
I was a young copy editor at the Journal. The photo was in the next morning's Sentinel, and amid the cheering MU fans was a guy shaking his fist at McGuire. Sometime that day the Journal sports staff made two discoveries. First, someone saw the photo and said, "Hey, that's Mr. Hughes."

Artie:
As in Kim and Kerry Hughes, the UW twin towers?

Frank:
Their father, yes.

Artie:
And the second discovery?

Frank:
Because the newspapers were jointly owned, they could run the same photos. Someone in Journal Sports, maybe tipped off, looked at the original print and found the Sentinel had altered it

Artie: Drum roll....

Frank:
Mr. Hughes' fist had a certain finger extending from it—as readers of the Journal saw the day after the Sentinel's version ran.

Artie:
That's the photo I remember!