Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Bucks: Still hanging around the playoff picture

There was a time, somewhere over winter break, when I thought the Milwaukee Bucks might have fallen into the abyss that is the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Not that there is much difference between that and the eighth and final playoff spot in the East, but still. After going 1-5 on a mid-January road trip out west where they experienced everything from being blown out, to getting blown out early only to come back and eventually lose to seemingly having a game sealed away only to, yes, blow it, the Bucks had fallen to 16-23 and away from the playoffs.

Heading into the All-Star break this weekend, we’re only a few weeks away from that time of the year where if, as an NBA team, you still find yourself in the eleven-twelve-thirteen area of the standings, you’re probably staying there and hoping for more ping-pong balls in the NBA Draft Lottery. This was the point that may have seemed all too familiar in Milwaukee in mid-January.

But the Bucks, continuing to prove they are not the Bucks of recent years, not only avoided basketball purgatory for the time being, are actually playing pretty well in these past few weeks, to the point where they are now on the cusp of a playoff spot at the season’s halfway marker. I mean, it’s not quite earth-shattering yet, but hopefully it’s an indication of meaningful basketball being played in Milwaukee for a whole season, maybe more. That would work for me.

Entering Wednesday, the Bucks have won six of their last ten games, bringing their record closer to the .500 mark at 23–27. The climb, as I assume the rest of the season will be, was not an easy one; sometimes it seems as though the Bucks have to fight their own bad habits more so than their opponent’s strengths. This has had the annoying tendency of showing up in close games; Milwaukee is 4-10 in games decided by three points or less.

It seems like they are still searching for that consistent late-game playmaker to replace volume-shooter Michael Redd. I am ready to see Brandon Jennings in pick-and-roll situations in every possession in the last four minutes of every game and as long as every shot attempt isn’t a step-back three pointer, I will live with the consequences. Just please no more Carlos Delfino running hook shots in game-deciding situations. Or any situations, really.

Even with their blemishes, the Bucks remain a fun watch and I believe they will hang around in the playoff picture because when they’re right, when Jennings is getting into the lane, when Andrew Bogut is making his chip-ins, when Delfino just shoots and doesn’t try anything else, at all, they can be pretty right. Plus, you don’t even have to be that good to make the playoffs in the East!

Which is good because, as shocking as this may sound, this isn’t a team that’s ready to truly contend yet anyway -- they have some pressing needs at the shooting guard and power forward positions, to start -- but the experience they could gain by being in a playoff race or actual playoff series together is something the franchise could actually build upon instead of trade away in the offseason.

So here’s hoping this is the first season of many in which the Bucks are playoff contenders. Sure, they may not be a championship-caliber team just yet, but I don’t see why they can’t be postseason-caliber. Why can’t they remain in the thick of it, playing with ambitions higher than the easy excuses of “next year” and “rebuilding?” That, for now, would mean something.

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