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Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012

Stirring Up the Passion, Or Maybe Not

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Slim Pickens, in Blazing Saddles, twanged it best: “What in the wahd, wahd world of sports is a-goin' on here?”

Three weeks ago the Bucks were on a roll—six wins in eight games, including two over Miami—and playing with energy and intelligence despite losing Andrew Bogut to injury. Then a lazy loss Feb. 3 at Detroit and a disaster at home against Chicago began a 3-7 slump through last weekend. Five of the losses were at home, including one to 5-20 New Orleans that left some Bucks saying the team lacked “passion.”


The passion was in New York as Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin, a virtual unknown, suddenly began playing like a superstar. An 8-1 surge sparked "Linsanity" and vaulted the Knicks past the Bucks and into the playoff picture.


Did NBA emperor David Stern decree a massive shift of team play and effort from Milwaukee to the league's biggest market? Did the basketball gods decide to mess around with things? Whatever it was, as Slim might say, it ain't been purty.

Frank: We got our first long look at Mr. Lin in action Sunday when the Knicks beat Dallas. And the verdict is…

Artie
: I'll tell you, there's a new favorite team at my place! I'm totally in; any Knicks TV game will be appointment viewing for me. This guy's got the goods. He's no Tim Tebow; these passes actually connect!

Frank
: The Hall of Fame should probably wait a while before scheduling his induction speech, but he sure looked impressive against the defending NBA champs…

Artie
: Who are a really top-flight defensive team.

Frank
: And who were running big guys like Shawn Marion at him in double-teams all day. Lin has had a lot of turnovers during this run, but that'll happen when you draw that kind of pressure. And he never stopped trying to push it into the paint.

Artie
: I just hope he can hold up physically, playing as hard as he does for all those minutes.

Frank
: But I was surprised to see that he's got some size at 6-3 and 200 pounds, so he should be able to take some knocks.

Artie
: It's not just Lin that's got me Knicks-crazy. There's Marquette's own Steve Novak, who's been resurrected with Lin. Boy, what a shooter!

Frank
: He looked great Sunday, and not just on his trademark three-pointers. He played good D, scrambled for loose balls, moved it around when he didn't have a shot.

Artie
: So did all the Knicks. They're feeding off Lin's energy and playing great team ball—even the new gunner, J.R. Smith, who's a little goofy but can flat-out play. Against the Mavs he was really committed defensively.

Frank
: How about the fact that Linsanity has happened almost entirely with Carmelo Anthony injured?

Artie
: I don't think “Melo” will screw it up when he returns. He's smart enough to know this kid can make him better, too.

Frank
: There is, of course, the drawback that you can only use one basketball. But the way to win, no matter who's on your team, is to play hard, play smart and play both ends of the floor.

Artie
: Exactly what the Bucks were doing when they were beating the Lakers and the Heat. It was shades of two years ago during the run to the playoffs. Then it was completely gone.

Frank
: So what happened?

Artie
: It may have a lot to do with psychology and egos. One thing that makes the NBA interesting is the chemistry of team play. Everyone has talent, but it has to be blended the right way.

Frank
: All this talk about lack of “passion” and not playing hard has me baffled. They know exactly what they have to do in Bogut's absence, and they were doing it.

Artie
: Nobody can play at the highest level all the time, but why would the “passion” disappear when it so obviously had worked?

Frank
: And when it's so obvious that when they don't play hard, they can lose to a 5-20 team.

Artie
: The only bright spot against New Orleans was Ersan Ilyasova. Drew Gooden was still playing well, too, but he hurt his right wrist and missed the two weekend games.

Frank
: Good thing Ilyasova had a 29-point, 25-rebound effort Sunday at New Jersey, a win they desperately needed. But the key guy is Brandon Jennings. He's been the ignitor ever since he scored 55 points in one of his earliest games as a rookie. And that's why his recent comments about his effort and his future were disturbing.

Artie
: His blathering was not well received on local talk-radio, from what I've heard.

Frank
: As the chart on this page shows, for the first six weeks of the season he was playing really well, but just as Lin began exploding Jennings began imploding.

Artie
: Maybe he became so focused on his future, and wondering about where this team is going, that he got depressed.

Frank
: The Bucks have locked in his fourth-year option for next season. He's eligible to sign an extension this summer, the way Bogut did in '08, and if not the Bucks could keep him for 2013-'14 with a qualifying offer. But after that he'd be an unrestricted free agent, and he told ESPN, "I'm going to keep my options open, knowing that the time is coming up. I'm doing my homework on big-market teams."

Artie
: He certainly has that right, and you can't blame him for legitimate concerns about getting stuck on a perennial loser. But his timing was pretty unfortunate, ain'a?

Frank
: No one thinks Jennings is a bad guy, and he seems to want to be a leader. But there's a fine line between being open with the media and saying too much.

Artie
: He's still a young guy, only the age of a college senior.

Frank
: The other big topic with him was his anger over not being chosen for the All-Star Game. He said, “I've got a major chip now." But instead of firing him up, the chip seemed to ice him over.

Artie
: He didn't help things by saying after the New Orleans debacle, “I can't say I've been playing hard the last couple games because I really haven't. I need to look in the mirror and ask myself is this something I'm up for."

Frank
: Something he's up for? Making lots of money playing a game he loves? Or maybe he means doing it in Milwaukee.

Artie
: And this was on top of the strange game on Feb. 7 against Phoenix, when Jennings took only four shots all night. Some thought it was because he was annoyed that his pal Stephen Jackson didn't play against Chicago three nights earlier.

Frank
: There's been some commentary questioning whether Scott Skiles is too mercurial in his rotations. Jackson has been anchored to the bench in several games, and complained about it last week. Friday night in Orlando, Richard Mbah a Moute didn't play a second.

Artie
: I didn't understand that at all. Mbah a Moute is one of their best defenders, and they're always saying they can play him against anyone, any position.

Frank
: It would be one thing if the Bucks had struggled right from the moment they lost Bogut. But in that first week without him, they showed they can succeed with a solid team effort.

Artie
: Like Lin and the Knicks.

Frank
: Milwaukee fans will have two chances to see if Linsanity lasts beyond February. The Knicks play here on Friday, March 9, and Wednesday, April 11.

Artie
: If the Bucks don't find their passion again, seeing Lin will be the only reason to attend.