With a win in Tuesday's game vs. Sacramento at the Bradley Center, the Milwaukee Bucks can place an exclamation point at the end of a surprising and successful first "half".
The Bucks enter with a 27-23 record, a half-game in front of New Orleans for fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings. Home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs is vital to Terry Porter's team; the Bucks are 20-5 at the Bradley Center, second only to Indiana's 21-5 home record in the East.
Home-court importance was magnified by events of the last two weeks. New Orleans tripped up the Bucks by one point in Louisiana on Jan. 28, but Milwaukee cruised to victory over the Hornets Saturday at the Bradley Center, 107-97. As in 2001, Milwaukee's home crowd could be the deciding factor in a seven-game Bucks-Hornets series.
The Bucks' current playoff status is surprising to most preseason pundits, myself included. However, the method by which Porter and Milwaukee have found success is relatively clear: everybody contributes.
Michael Redd has earned well-deserved praise for his emergent, All-Star season, but he's simply the lead marksmen in a determined posse. Joe Smith supplies Milwaukee with toughness and rebounding; Toni Kukoc continues to be provide veteran leadership; and Desmond Mason, T.J. Ford and Tim Thomas act as secondary offensive options to Redd.
But it's been the other guys, the NBA no-names and vagabonds, who have turned the Bucks into a legitimate playoff team in East, however watered-down it may be. Three in particular come to mind: Damon Jones, Brian Skinner and Dan Gadzuric.
Along with Redd and Mason, Jones has played in all 50 games thus far. His 4.8 assists/game are a career-high, and he's often on the court instead of Ford late in close games. He leads the league in assists per turnover (4.51), symbolic for an overachieving team that doesn't beat itself.
Jones isn't a sublime shooter, but he has a funny knack for taking and making big shots. He hit 4-of-7 3-pointers in the late January loss to Charlotte, and his alley-oop assist and driving lay-up helped the Bucks hold off Cleveland two days later at the Bradley Center.
Skinner joined the Bucks a week prior to Jones in July, but he was slowed early in the season by a knee injury. Limited to 25 games thus far, Skinner has provided the Bucks with consistent rebounding when healthy. His 7.4 rpg are second to Smith, and both totals would have led the team in 2002-'03, when Desmond Mason grabbed 6.7 a night to pace the club.
Skinner is integral to the Bucks' chances of advancing in the playoffs. At 6-9, 265, he's much more suited to bruising NBA post play than the 6-10, 225-pound Smith. And backup center Daniel Santiago is simply not a viable option in the postseason. Skinner could hold his own against New Orleans C Jamaal Magloire -- a burgeoning talent among Eastern centers -- in a potential first-round meeting.
Gadzuric, of course, is already one of the Bucks' most popular players. A Bradley Center favorite, Gadzuric would have been comfortable playing with the 1980s Showtime Lakers; his natural physical state is a dead sprint.
Gadzuric's 6.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks each night loom much larger on the court than the stat sheet. He is to the 2003-'04 Bucks what Darvin Ham was to the 2001-'02 team -- its emotional and athletic spark plug.
While Skinner normally starts, the trio represents the team's overall depth. Porter often plays some combination of Jones, Skinner, Gadzuric, Erick Strickland, Marcus Haislip and Kukoc for extended stretches, cutting into the opposition's lead or building on its own. And when the bench struggles, big games by Redd, Thomas or Mason are often not enough to counter it.
The emotion and effectiveness of the entire roster has been fickle away from the Bradley Center. This problem could expose the team in March, when 10 of 16 games are on the road. I don't expect that trend to immediately reverse itself, but Jones, Skinner and Gadzuric have as much power to change the Bucks' road woes as anyone.
Sports shots columnist Tim Gutowski was born in a hospital in West Allis and his sporting heart never really left. He grew up in a tiny town 30 miles west of the city named Genesee and was in attendance at County Stadium the day the Brewers clinched the 1981 second-half AL East crown. I bet you can't say that.
Though Tim moved away from Wisconsin (to Iowa and eventually the suburbs of Chicago) as a 10-year-old, he eventually found his way back to Milwaukee. He remembers fondly the pre-Web days of listenting to static-filled Brewers games on AM 620 and crying after repeated Bears' victories over the Packers.