By Tim Gutowski Published Apr 27, 2004 at 5:22 AM

{image1}The Bucks are not likely to win their first-round series with the Detroit Pistons, not after Monday's 109-92 defeat left them behind 3-1 to the Bad Boys Revisited. But I still feel compelled to eat a little crow.

Milwaukee's Game Two win in Detroit last week showed a heck of lot more heart than I did in slamming the team following its Game One blowout loss. Unfortunately, the impressive win doesn't appear to have made any difference in the series' long-term prognosis.

Losing to these Pistons is no crime. No, the felony was committed by losing the season's final three games to draw them in the first place.

That failure is has been well documented, however -- so where do the Bucks go from here? What are we to make of this 41-41 Bucks team, a playoff surprise that somehow managed to be a playoff disappointment at the same time?

In life, there are truisms. For the next 500 words, there are truisms in the NBA, as well.

First: The Bucks are an average team. They won 41 times this season and lost 41 times. That's practically right out of Merriam-Webster. "Average" may have exceeded preseason expectations, and for that the team can be relatively proud. But it is still "average."

At no point was this more obvious than during Game Three. The Bucks stormed out to a double-digit advantage in the first half, shot the lights out of the Bradley Center, and took a seven-point lead at half. Minutes into the third quarter, not only had the Pistons reversed that lead, they were completely in control of the game and series. Milwaukee has yet to recover. A good team sustains while an average team frustrates.

Why are the Bucks average? Our second truism: The Bucks defense cannot make an important stop. In this sense, the 2003-'04 Milwaukee Bucks are very much like the 2003-'04 Green Bay Packers. The more crucial a defensive play is, the less likely the Bucks are to make it.

Take Monday night. With the game still in reach at 89-81 with 4:46 remaining, the Pistons did the following with their next five possessions: two free throws, layup, missed jumper, layup, 3-pointer. From there, the game was decided. Contrast that to the Bucks' scoreless streak from the floor over the last four minutes of Game Three.

Not convinced? Think about the last few, torturous minutes of the regular season, when the Bucks allowed Toronto to bomb away from 3-point land, shooting Milwaukee out of the coveted fourth seed. One stop -- one -- wins that game and brings Miami to Milwaukee.

Our next truism: The Bucks are a good offensive team. After all, the Bucks led the East in scoring this season. Michael Redd, Desmond Mason and T.J. Ford are all impressive offensive weapons, and Damon Jones, Joe Smith and Toni Kukoc all have their moments.

But in the playoffs, Milwaukee lacks a reliable inside presence -- in either lane. When the jumpers stop falling, they still keep launching. Alternately, the Pistons are able to drive the lane with abandon, earning free throws or easy buckets to maintain a lead in close games.

Another truism: Great teams win with great players. Do the Bucks have any great players? Redd was an All-Star this season and a very good NBA player. Mason is electric at times, though his shooting oftentimes lacks. Ford, before his injury, showed signs of becoming a good player over time.

But are there great ones here? Is there a Ben Wallace or a Jermaine O'Neal? Jason Kidd or Kenyon Martin? Kevin Garnett or Kobe Bryant? Tim Duncan or Peja Stojakovic? Not yet, anyway. And the Bucks will likely bow out early because of it.

The final truism? The Bucks must get better. Terry Porter and Larry Harris gave Milwaukee fans some wins this season, and they probably hurt their own cause by raising expectations so quickly. But they are raised. And, if not the second round, the NBA Draft is just around the corner.

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.