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/ March 26, 2004

MILWAUKEE’S EXCELLENT YEAR

The Milwaukee Bucks weren’t supposed to be this good.

Not without Ray Allen or Gary Payton or Tim Thomas.

Not with a first-year coach in Terry Porter or a rather unproven first option in Michael Redd. Not with a 5-foot-9 rookie point guard in T.J. Ford or a discarded veteran center in Brian Skinner.

But here they are, playing better than .500 basketball and all but having secured a playoff berth with two weeks left in the regular season. All of it makes Milwaukee the feel-good story of the Eastern Conference.

First, Payton takes a pay cut to sign with the Lakers. Then Ford fills in and plays like the rookie he is, then he starts coming around, then he gets injured. Then the Bucks ship Thomas to New York in a midseason deal that brings them chronic underachiever Keith Van Horn.

And let’s not forget about last summer, when proven coach George Karl left the only way he knows how -- by getting on everyone’s nerves first. Porter, who had no prior head coaching experience, was named the replacement and the rest of the NBA got a good laugh.

For a couple months, anyway.

Then the season started and the Bucks used good ball movement, underrated defense, and all-around team chemistry to race to a surprising start. It’s been pretty much gravy ever since, with Redd and Van Horn in the midst of their best seasons.

But what I like most about the Bucks is they have been a TEAM in every sense of the word. Credit Porter, whose players actually pass the ball when they see a teammate who has a better look at the basket. Sounds simple, but it’s not always the case in a league where respect is often determined by the shots you take and amount of money you make.

Milwaukee also has some real talent, beginning with Redd, among the game’s purest perimeter shooters. What a lot of people don’t know about Redd is he’s also a nifty passer who tries hard on defense. When he’s clicking, NO ONE can stop him.

Meanwhile, Van Horn has become a little more aggressive (particularly when the idea is rebounding), and while he rarely makes the highlights, he finds a way to get the ball in the basket. On any given night, Van Horn can score 20-25 points and grab 12-15 rebounds.

As for the rest of the Bucks, Joe Smith remains a solid power forward who doesn’t mind letting everyone else take the shots and scoring his 10.4 points per game via pure hustle, and Erick Strickland and Damon Jones have formed a reliable duo at point guard while Ford develops and heals.

It doesn’t hurt that swingman Desmond Mason brings remarkable athleticism off the bench, or that Skinner has spent an entire season performing above expectations.

Toni Kukoc and Dan Gadzuric are two more contributors, and perfect examples that while the Bucks are a team without any major superstars, they sure know how to play together.

And for once, that just might be good enough.

THE LAKERS AND KOBE

-- The big rumor being spread by all the New York and Los Angeles newspapers is that Lakers guard and free-agent-to-be Kobe Bryant has one eye on New York. Some reports have the Lakers trying to work out a sign-and-trade deal that would ship Bryant to the Knicks for sharpshooter Allan Houston. DON’T BELIEVE ANY OF IT. Bryant isn’t going anywhere. Not now, not ever.

-- All of this reminds me of when Scottie Pippen used to talk about leaving Chicago during the Bulls’ heyday of the 1990s. Remember? Pippen would pout and the Bulls would just keep on winning. I’m not saying Phil Jackson orchestrates this type of behavior from his stars, but …

-- I guess what I am trying to say is Jackson does seem to encourage free-thinking amongst his players. The Bulls were always bickering or berating management, and today’s Lakers act pretty much the same way. The biggest difference is the old Bulls NEVER took shots at Jackson, something these Lakers seem to do almost weekly. Gary Payton complains about playing time, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe trade barbs in the papers, Shaq grumbles about his contract, on and on it goes. So don’t be fooled -- Jackson WANTS controversy. It’s all part of his Sacred Hoops routine. I don’t know why, I just know it‘s all a ruse. It also appears to be working.

-- As for on-the-court stuff, I absolutely LOVED watching Kobe Bryant defend Tracy McGrady during the Lakers-Magic game in mid-March. I haven’t seen perimeter defense like that since You Know Who retired from the Bulls. Say what you will about Kobe but -- love him or hate him -- he plays with the heart of a champion every night.

-- Just to clarify, I’m talking about the game in which the Lakers came from 14 points down at the end of the third quarter to win in overtime. That game was in Los Angeles, and Bryant frustrated McGrady into a mere five points in the final 17 minutes. Interestingly, the Lakers came from 15 down at the end of the third to win in Orlando earlier this season.

THE ROCKETS AND STEVIE

-- I admit, I’ve never been the world’s biggest Steve Francis fan, or anything close. I’ve always believed that Francis was a talented-but-extremely-selfish point guard, the reason no one ever seems to take Houston seriously. (One general manager even told me that the joke around the league is the only good pass Francis has ever thrown was the one he tossed of the backboard to, fittingly, himself). But my opinion on Francis is quickly changing, as he’s been praising Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy and openly rooting for and supporting second-year center Yao Ming. Mostly, Francis has suddenly turned into a hard worker with a team-first attitude. Hopefully, he realizes he’s become twice the player because of it.

-- Speaking of Francis, no way did he deserve to be fined $25,000 by the league office for cursing during a halftime interview in the Rockets’ loss to Sacramento March 21. Francis was upset about what he viewed as a non-call right before the second-quarter buzzer sounded, then swore and stormed off the court when approached by ESPN sideline reporter Jim Gray. But Francis spoke to Gray again after taking some time to cool off in the locker room, offering a sincere apology to his teammates and the fans. I agree with the NBA rule that prohibits players from cussing on live television, but what does the league expect when it allows interviews to be held in the heat of the battle?

HIGH SCHOOLERS AND THE NBA, PART 372

Reader Joe Tuscano (Washington, Pa.) felt the need to weigh in on the subject of high schoolers entering the NBA, the subject of the previous newsletter. Here’s what Joe had to say:

“The question should be, ‘Why is the NBA drafting high school seniors?’ Over the last four drafts, only one player, LeBron James, has become a star. He's the exception, not the rule. Jermaine O'Neal was let go by Portland after three seasons while Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant are seven-year-old success stories. Look at Chicago and the ‘masterful’ job Jerry Krause did with the ‘Baby Bulls.’

“The quality of play has deteriorated because of this infusion of youth. Air balls, turnovers, and low scores are turning off fans. Yet, the NBA still drafts them, pays them millions to learn on the job, and they drag the talent level dangerously close to the college game. The league should stop eating its young and make sure these kids have more experience than their state high school playoffs.”

RANDOM STUFF

-- Great line by former Utah scoring machine and current Denver assistant coach Adrian Dantley, whose number has not been retired by the Jazz with those of Pete Maravich, Darrell Griffith, Mark Eaton and Jeff Hornacek: “No disrespect to those guys, but the bottom line is, they weren’t better players than me.” Dantley has a point about Eaton and Hornacek, but he wasn’t as good as Maravich or Griffith.

-- Did you notice Seattle went 4-1 on its final trip through the Eastern Conference? Now you know why I pick the SuperSonics to make the playoffs before the start of every season. Only problem is, they’re members of the Western Conference.

-- It’s great to see swingman DerMarr Johnson playing well off New York’s bench. After being involved in a car wreck and having to sit out all of last season, a lot of fans worried that Johnson would never play again (this one included). Especially after seeing Johnson wearing one of those “halo” neck braces. Today, he has to be considered a candidate for the Comeback Player of the Year award.

-- Boston fans may not realize it yet, but they have a real gem in 5-foot-10 point guard Chucky Atkins, acquired from Detroit in a midseason trade. Atkins’ best attribute is being a winner, as he replaced injured starter Chauncey Billups in two of the Pistons’ playoff games against the Celtics last season -- and the Pistons won both. No less than Indiana coach Rick Carlisle called Atkins the most underrated point guard in the league. Carlisle should know; he was Atkins’ coach last year in Detroit.

-- The only thing Dallas coach Don Nelson could say after watching his Mavericks lose at home to lowly Atlanta? “They were making shots when we guarded them, which was seldom.” The Hawks swept the two-game season series, making them the only team in the Eastern Conference that probably wishes it played in the West.

-- Write it down: Minnesota backup center has Ervin Johnson has officially become the league’s Tim Duncan-stopper. Anyone who watched Johnson shut down Duncan in their March 24 matchup knows what I’m talking about.

-- ESPN Classic’s “25 Hours of Magic and Bird” would make my cable bill worth it even if I never watched another program. In case you missed it, the station aired 25 straight hours of NCAA tournament games featuring Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team and Larry Bird’s Indiana State team from 1979, concluding with Magic and Bird’s matchup in the national championship. Hard to believe it’s been 25 years since that game, which is still the most watched college basketball final ever and was this old scribe’s introduction to the sport. So is it any wonder I love it so much?

-- Finally, a nice story in the Indianapolis Star about former Cleveland State coach Kevin Mackey, now a scout with the Pacers: http://www.indystar.com/articles/1/131734-8021-039.html

READER FEEDBACK

From Darryl Porter (Charlotte, N.C.): How good do you think NYC high school point guard Sebastian Telfair will be in the pros?

A: Dear Darryl, I’ve never seen Telfair play, so I asked an NBA scout who has. The scout said Belfair won’t ever be as good as his cousin, Knicks point guard Stephon Marbury, “but more like Kenny Anderson -- a solid player and once-in-a-while All-Star.”

From Carl Pearson (Baton Rouge, La.): You have occasionally recommended good books about basketball, calling David Halberstam’s “Breaks of the Game,” your all-time favorite. But what about basketball books that have been released within the past four or five years?

A: Dear Carl, my top five recent releases: 1. “Big Game, Small World,” by Alexander Wolff; 2. “More Than a Game,” by Charley Rosen and Phil Jackson; 3. “One Last Shot,” by Mitchell Krugel; 4. “The Punch,” by John Feinstein; 5. (tie) “King James,” by Ryan Jones, and “Unguarded,” by Lenny Wilkens and Terry Pluto.

From Trenton Nasterone (Arlington, Va.): Have you read “Big Game, Small World,” by Alexander Wolff? If so, what did you think?

A: Dear Trenton, it was definitely one of the top 10 basketball books I’ve read, as “Big Game” not only displays the author’s consummate passion for the game, but does an excellent job of teaching about various countries and their cultures. Superb reporting, and my only problem with Wolff is he occasionally uses a big word when a simple one will do. He also is the co-author of “The In-Your-Face Basketball Book,” which was released about 20 years ago but is still never far from reach.

From Steve Hodge (London, England): Right now, my All-NBA team would be C Shaquille O’Neal, F Kevin Garnett, F Tim Duncan, G Tracy McGrady, G Jason Kidd, with Garnett being the MVP. Agree?

A: Dear Steve, yep … with one exception. I’d put Kobe Bryant ahead of McGrady because Kobe’s team is winning. I also think Orlando would be faring a little better if McGrady and Bryant switched teams.

From Maurice Neal (Michigan City, Ind.): Who is your all-time favorite player from my hometown?

A: Dear Maurice, not even you can stump me. My answer is, without question, Delray Brooks.

CONTACT ME

You can e-mail your thoughts to me at amicoreport@hotmail.com. You must include your full name to be considered for publication. Also, please include your hometown, as I love to see where the e-mails are coming from.

HAVE A GREAT DAY!



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