Tag Archives: Charlotte Bobcats

Bucks giftwrap Bobcats home opener in Charlotte

After pounding the Charlotte Bobcats for one half and taking an 11 point lead at the break and going up 14, the Bucks apparently thought their season opener was in the bag.  A 30-14 pasting in the 3rd quarter reminded all (yet again) that this Bucks team simply isn’t as good as it apparently thinks it is.

They looked a lot like one of those teams that has forgotten what it’s like to win in the NBA and can’t find the “how-to” manual.

In the fateful 3rd, one long offensive rebound after another bricked out to the Cats over the inside position held by Andrew Bogut and Ersan Ilyasova, and the second and third chance points piled up against a solid Bucks D that had forced the Cats outside.

Charlotte held a 52-39 rebounding advantage and grabbed 15 offensive boards.  Remember when the Bucks hit the floor to seemingly come up with every available loose ball — those “50-50 plays” that coach Scott Skiles, Bogut and Luc Mbah a Moute used to talk about?

Last night, the Bucks didn’t get those, and nobody was talking about them.  (Mbah a Moute, it should be noted, didn’t play due to some minor tendonitis in his right knee.  Do the Bucks miss him that much?  Yeah, they probably do.)

Bobcat guards Gerald Henderson and Kemba Walker had a combined 16 boards, just two less than Bogut and Ilyasova.  In 114 combined minutes, Bucks guards Brandon Jennings, Beno Udrih, guard-forward Mike Dunleavy and forward-guard Stephen Jackson had all of 8 rebounds.  That’s one rebound every 14 minutes.

Jackson was particularly awful, fouling out in just 17 minutes, getting a technical on the sixth foul and taking four ugly looking three pointers.  One banked in, unbelievably.  Is this the kind of basketball Skiles is going to allow this season?   One has to wonder.

More importantly, Bogut looked good, better than he has since he mangled his arm in 2010:  17 points, 9 rebounds, a blocked shot and two of the Bucks six steals.

Unfortunately, most of the points came early against Cats PF Boris Diaw.  Bogut had difficulty taking advantage of DeSagana Diop, the ‘Cats behemoth center, in the third quarter — and, you know our Bucks — the guards, led by Brandon Jennings, didn’t seem too interested in constructing offense where Bogut could take Diop in the open court.  More self-inflicted offensive woes from Skiles’ Bucks.

Ilyasova and Gooden couldn’t get anything going offensively (combined 2-8 shooting).  Here’s an insightful note from We’re Bucked because I’m trying really hard not to carp about Gooden:

The backup center issue is still an issue.  When Bogut left for his late third-quarter breather, the Bobcats outscored the Bucks 9-0. Not only that, but before action resumed, Charlotte added two more free throws (plus possession of the ball) on a Drew Gooden flagrant foul that led to his ejection.  So Bogut left with a six-point lead, came back to a five-point deficit, and returned early because Drew got himself tossed.

Mike Dunleavy, Jr., and Jackson shot a combined 4-16, the only makes from downtown.  That’s combined 6-24 shooting from three starters and a key rotation big man.  Ouch.

Carlos Delfino could have done that.  He was out nursing a sprained shooting wrist, apparently suffered when he gunned one too many from 3-point-land.

Home opener tonight at 7:30 PM.  Bucks will try again tonight at home in the Bradley Center against the Timberwolves and Kevin Love — a long night for the Bucks power forwards.  And BJ hasn’t been good against his old backup, Luke Ridnour, never mind Ricky Rubio.

Note to self:  This post is way too damned long.  Must … find … better … way … to write.   Running down recaps of generally forgettable basketball games will draw a fine from the editorial board.   Time to dig around in the video vault for more footage of Stephen Jackson doing things ridiculous.

Halfway Report: Grizzlies loss a microcosm of season, in miniature

The Bucks stumbled to the halfway point of the NBA schedule with a 16-25 record, losing to the Grizzlies 94-81 Saturday night at the BC in a style Bucks fans have become accustomed to this season.  Analyze the game, and it suffices pretty well as an encapsulation of the season.

1) Andrew Bogut, ailing all season with back issues, a mysterious virus and his recovering right paw, was less than superlative.  He was outplayed by Marc Gasol, who recorded his first 20-10 game of the season (24 points, 16 rebs).  This was the type of performance by Bogut that has made this season a trial for the Bucks, and the type of loss that may keep him off the 2011 All-Star team.  Bogut had 14 pts, 9 rebs, 3 blks, 2 stls but wasn’t the center making competent decisions on the floor. That center was Gasol.

“It was an ugly basketball game for most of the night and they outplayed us. Gasol, he killed me tonight and he had a lot of easy baskets and post moves. Their bigs really played well.”  – Bogut after the game.

“Ugly basketball game” might have been a reference to the terrible refereeing.  The whistle-blowers were bad, even by NBA standards.  An inexplicable 2nd foul call on Bogut three minutes into the game shackled him for most of the first half.   One highly questionable and two “how-much-does-the-zebra-have-on-this-one?” calls against the Bucks in the 3rd quarter changed the game and pushed the Griz out to a 59-46 lead.  But this is supposed to be a microcosm game for the season. No referee beefs allowed, unless it’s to say that the Bucks have, at times, been a hard luck team.

2) Starting guard John Salmons, the Bucks second leading active scorer, missed his 2nd game due to a hip problem.  The Bucks lead the NBA in starter games missed, even if you don’t count Drew Gooden as a legitimate starter.  They played their 17th game without injured Brandon Jennings is recovering from surgery on a bone fracture in his left foot and may return this week.  The Bucks are 6-11 without their point guard.  They need him.  Earl Boykins really likes to dribble around and dribble around and shoot.

3) The Bucks guards shot 12 out of 47 from the floor, 25.5 percent.  Everybody else shot 22 of 43 – 51.2% – and were good enough to beat the Grizzlies.  Is it too late to send Keyon Dooling back to free agency?   Carlos Delfino played too much in his second game back from head injuries, and shot too much. Chris Douglas-Roberts started the game but was benched after the first quarter.

4) Ersan Ilyasova was yanked by Skiles in the third quarter and did not return to the game.  Why?  He was burned twice by shaky officiating on two possessions, one against Gasol after he and Bogut switched; the other on a shoulder-first move by Zach Randolph in the post.  Add this Grizzlies loss to the long line of “Ersanity Factor” games, with this one emphasizing the illogic of Skiles’ yanks and how they hurt his team.

Ilyasova and Randolph were having a good battle, with Ilyasova playing 16 mins in the first half, some of it at center when Bogut got hit with foul trouble.  The halftime score was 43-40 Grizzlies.  The Bucks were behind, not because Randolph was having a game — he wasn’t.  Gasol was.  The Bucks guards were both shot-happy and bad.  Ilyasova and Corey Maggette, along with Bogut, seemed to have matters under control in the 3rd but for the refs dictating the game.  Skiles first pulled Ilyasova, then sat Maggette down.  With his starting forwards on the bench, the Bucks quickly found themselves down by 18, 72-54.

When the Bucks by mid-4th quarter pulled to within four against the Grizzlies bench, it seemed the ideal time for Skiles go back to Bogut and his starting forwards.  Most coaches would have, and trusted them to finish a win at home.  But not Skiles, who left the reserves on the court too long and didn’t call Ilyasova off the bench at all.

Ilyasova’s critics will say that he’s inconsistent (code for “his shots don’t always go in the basket”), and this has justified Skiles’ short leash. Earlier in the season, Skiles was pulling Ersan after consecutive misses.   Now it seems the coach will yank him even when he isn’t taking shots.  Ersan on Saturday was three for five from the floor, six points, and had locked into his matchup against Randolph, which — if nothing else, was adding drama to the game that Skiles didn’t seem to appreciate.

Ersan, after the Grizzlies game, was tied for 18th with Dwyane Wade and David West in NBA defensive rating at 100.9 points allowed per 100 possessions played.  They’re in a group of five Top 20 defenders rated between 100 to 1oo.9 that also includes Tyson Chandler (100.5) and Lebron James (1oo.8).

With the loss, the Bucks record fell to 6-16 in games where Skiles has played Ilyasova fewer than 24 minutes.  Prior to Saturday’s loss, the most previous example of Skiles not playing Ilyasova in the 4th quarter was the Bucks’ lethargic loss in Houston.  The Bucks are 10-9 when Ilyasova plays 24+ minutes.

5. The Packers kick it off against the Bears at 2 pm this afternoon, and NBA league pass is free this weekend.  Time for me to stop worrying about the Bucks and Scott Skiles for at least a few hours.

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The Atlanta Hawks bounced back in Charlotte from their 100-59 humiliation to CP3 and the Hornets Friday.  Mike Bibby sparked the 3rd quarter offensive bust-out that made the difference in the game.  Joe Johnson was sharp (32 points) after shooting 1 for 16 against N’Awlins.  It was all very unspectacular and surprisingly ho-hum.  With Al Horford out nursing an ankle sprain, the grind-out, Eastern Conference style of the game went more the way of the Hawks, and  Charlotte didn’t put up much resistance after Bibby and Johnson’s offensive burst in the 3rd.  A team can’t let the Hawks feel good about themselves for any length of time, or their jumpers begin to fall like rain from all over the gym.  The ‘Cats understand this defensively, knowing both sides of the schizophrenic Hawks, and usually give the Hawks more trouble than they can handle in Carolina.  If only the ‘Cats offense would cooperate.

Stephen Jackson was horrible for the fifth game in a row, digging a steep production crater on the Bobcats’ wing.  It seems that ESPN’s Jackson to Dallas or Chicago trade campaigns are out to kill perceptions of Jackson as a reliable scorer.  It’s not that the extra attention and interest in Jackson has caused a slump — these slumps of his are natural.  The seven for 17 shooting guard who makes 2 of 6 threes looks good on paper, but he doesn’t shoot seven for 17 every game — the bad streaks are horrendous, as Jackson and the Bobcats know well.

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The Knicks want two All-Stars, Amar’e Stoudemire and Raymond Felton.  Saturday in Oklahoma City, Felton played like he wanted it, too, and was out to create the highlight plays that could help get him to Los Angeles next month.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t good for Felton’s teammates, who received all of one dime from their point guard in the second half.  The highlight play never materialized as Felton, possession after possession late in the 4th and went one on one against Russell Westbrook.  He hit one shot — a tough step-back, fallaway jumper with Westbrook in his face. The rest rimmed out, one drive drawing nothing but air.  The Thunder inched closer until they had the ball and a tie, with six seconds left on the clock after the Felton’s final exercise in one-on-one futility.  Kevin Durant calmly dropped a three-pointer from the far wing at the buzzer to win 101-98.

Kevin Durant (30 pts in the game) is an All-Star.  Raymond Felton?  Ten points, 5-for-16 shooting, seven assists … not an All-Star.  Ray’s not doing anything differently this season except shooting more, making a lower percentage and playing in New York.  If his assists are up (and they are with the Knicks), remember that last season he was a Bobcat.  Felton’s 2011 teammates, Amar’e Stoudemire for example, know a thing or two about scoring off a pass.

The Knicks loss dropped their record to 22-21, just five games ahead of the 10th place Bucks in the Eastern Conference.  The Knicks are in 6th and would play the Bulls if the playoffs started today.  … There’s nothing odd or controversial about the Knicks fall to the .500 zone of NBA mediocrity. The Knicks schedule has begun to even out after they feasted on NBA patsies like the Raptors and Wizards.  While the Bucks are 1-0 against the Wiz and haven’t played the Raptors, the Knicks are 5-0 against those Eastern Conference powerhouses.

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QUOTE OF THE WEEK:

“It’s not fun playing aggressive and really trying to apply some energy, and get penalized for it. A lot of guys are playing very, very physical toward me. I’m starting to get injured a lot. My shoulders, arms, hands are starting to get banged up a lot. It’s a little frustrating.”

Amar’e Stoudemire, after the Spurs beat him up on their way to a 101-92 win in San Antonio Friday.  Typical Amar’e.  Sounds like what he said after Andrew Bogut and the Bucks blew the Knicks out in Milwaukee earlier this season.  He accused Bogut of cracking him with an elbow under instructions from Scott Skiles to “retaliate” against him for pushing Bogut in the back on a breakaway last March and causing the momentum that caused the fall that mangled Bogut’s arm and finished his 2011 season.  “What play is he talking about” Bogut wondered.

The Knicks loss to the Thunder the next night was their 6th straight.

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Pacers vs. Nuggets: What a brawl a game against the Denver Nuggets is.  The Pacers and Tyler Hansbrough — who shot a lot for a guy who’s averaging 7.2 pts a game — weren’t quite ready for it, though they worked hard to keep it relatively close even as Carmelo Anthony was raining six three pointers on them in the 3rd quarter

Ty-bro, by the way, had a career high 27 in this one, which they needed to keep the score close because Danny Granger didn’t show up, then left the game with a sprained ankle. I don’t think Danny’s going to the All-Star game this year.  … The Ty-Bro show was by design, obviously.  The Nuggets frontline is about the same 6’8″- 6’9″, same limited wingspan, and, like Ty-bro, they’re strong, only wider and closer to the floor.  “Get that shit outta here,” Keyon Martin shouted as he blocked a Ty-bro post move in the 3rd quarter.  But Ty-Bro kept coming at the Nuggets and had his midrange game on target.

Martin’s lost a few steps in recent years but he’s still full of intimidation and noise, if not much else. 25 mins — 4 pts, 4 rebs would have Bucks fans demanding that Skiles yank the power forward.

There wasn’t much the Pacers, who played the night before in Portland, could do in this Sunday night game but collect the ball out of the net while Carmelo and friends were having far too much fun on their home court.  But down 15 at the end of the 3rd, the Pacers were still D-ing up with intensity, trying to stay in the game.  But they couldn’t get any closer against J.R. Smith, Al Harrington and the Nuggets bench.

The Pacers are now 16-25, tied with the Bucks, who’ve beat their Central Division rivals twice this season. In many statistical measures, the Pacers and the Bucks come out fairly even — they’ve both been a bit unlucky, based on what they’re scoring and giving up.  The Pacers defense is in the Top 10, while they play a pace quicker than the Bucks, but they’re still look like a team growing.  The Bucks 16-25 comes with a roster-full of injury problems against the toughest schedule of any Eastern Conference team.

Only the Mavs have played a slightly tougher schedule than the Bucks, based on opponent record.

Their left feet: Jennings leads his Bogut-less Bucks to Utah

Slow news day this Monday in the Bucks camp but yesterday the Bucks did note that Andrew Bogut didn’t travel with the team to Utah, which ought to keep life very interesting for Brandon Jennings, Ersan Ilyasova and Luc Mbah a Moute, who gutted out a much-needed 104-101 win against the Bobcats Saturday, ending the Bucks five-game losing streak.

How a group of NBA players — no matter who they are — can shoot as poorly as the Bucks did in losing those five games is a mystery, one that unfolded with a strange side-effect:  the new guys — Corey Maggette and Drew Gooden — developed sore feet.  Even stranger was that the soreness did not attack just any feet, but has targeted Maggette and Gooden’s left feet.

Whatever the source of this strange left foot malady, Maggette didn’t suit up Saturday and coach Scott Skiles took the opportunity to do what many Bucks fans have been calling on him to do since the first games of the seasom:  move Gooden to the bench, where he sat all game registering a DNP.  Ilyasova took the starting power forward duties and, from the opening tap the Bucks seemed to recognize each other — and themselves —  and jumped out to a double digit lead that they held until the ‘Cats made a gritty run at them in the fourth quarter.

Ilyasova played 40+ minutes and finished with 17 pts, 9 rebs and six assists — showing again that if Skiles gives him minutes, he doesn’t play as though he has two left feet.  Mbah a Moute played all but 40 seconds of the game and posted 12 pts, 10 boards battling with Gerald Wallace and harassing Stephen Jackson into two technical fouls and an ejection early in the first quarter.

Larry Sanders started at center and had his best game as a pro, while the generally terrible Jon Brockman backed Sanders up in the first half and was benched in the 2nd.  John Salmons was good for three quarters before running out of gas in the 4th.

Jennings, as prescribed, was great, leading the Bucks with 32 pts and 6 assists.  Maybe it was the absence of Gooden clogging the post and demanding the ball — maybe it was Jennings simply taking over — but the ball moved, the Bucks shooters got well for one night and the losing streak ended.  They’ll need Jennings to assert and maintain control of the Bucks offense this week in Utah and Denver.

Their left feet: Maggette limped off the court in Detroit Friday, and Skiles mentioned that he was aware Maggette was having problems before the game.  He didn’t suit up.  While Maggette had foot problems in training camp, much less has been reported about Gooden’s left foot.  Gooden has been healthy all year and the decision to sit him down came right up to game time, the reports suggested, though no mention is made of Gooden ailment.

So, what gives? Is Gooden hurt or — given the lack of ball movement when he’s in the game — has he been  benched?   Whatever the situation — and Gooden did seem to hit a wall while playing far too many minutes during the five game losing streak — Jennings didn’t miss him as an option, and had no problem keeping the entire starting five involved in the offense.

This just in: Gooden is out with plantar fasciitis in his left foot left ankle injury, Jennings’ starting line-up stays with Ilyasova and Sanders on the frontline.  Maggette is listed as a game time decision.

Note to Scott Skiles: Last season’s forwards, please

The Bucks 2010-11 Bucks in their first two games look eerily similar to the 209-10 team that tried and failed last Nov.-Dec. to work Michael Redd into its rotation.  The Bucks with Redd stood around on offense; the ball didn’t move; they lacked chemistry and consistent defense; and they lost twice as often as they won (the Bucks were 6-12 when Redd played).

To be fair, that team — like this season’s Bucks — had injury issues.  After a 6-3 start Andrew Bogut went out for six games with a deep thigh bruise and Luc Mbah a Moute missed a couple of weeks with a bum ankle.  Mbah a Moute has been hobbled by a bad ankle in the Bucks first two games this season, and Bogut has been limited by foul trouble, his healing right arm and some conditioning issues.

What last year’s Bucks team had that the current Bucks do not was a backup center in Kurt Thomas; a backup point guard nicknamed Frodo who knew the offense as well as the coach and played with desperate energy; and they had the unselfish “D-Wade stopper” Charlie Bell, who made sure that the ball was going in the post to Bogut.  With the unsung hero Bell starting in Redd’s place, last year’s Bucks were 19-16 including a couple of clumsy, disjointed losses with Redd firing ill-timed bricks in a reserve role.

What last year’s Bucks team didn’t have was a logjam at forward; they had a simple rotation (when Redd wasn’t playing).  The eight-man rotation of Jennings, Bell, Luke Ridnour, Carlos Delfino, Mbah a Moute, Ersan Ilyasova, Bogut and Thomas was well-knit, smart, unselfish, and extremely hard-working. Nobody outrebounded that team by 23 boards (the T-Wolves had a 62-39 rebounding advantage). That team never gave up 19 offensive boards. What’s different about this season?

1) Not once last season did Skiles relegate Ilyasova and Mbah a Moute to scrub 26 minutes … COMBINED.  And;

2) Not once during the 2009-10 82-game schedule did the Bucks suit up without a legitimate backup at center for Bogut.

Those two factors are directly attributable to the rebounding failure in Minneapolis Friday night, and the failure to win “50-50” plays and get to loose balls in the paint.  And it’s no accident that when Skiles played Mbah a Moute, finally, late in the 3rd quarter, the Bucks pulled back into the game and erased most of a 17-point T-wolves lead.

On the court for that run were Brandon Jennings, pint-sized Earl Boykins, Corey Maggette, Mbah a Moute and Bogut.

Skiles can’t solve the backup center problem until GM John Hammond acquires a backup center.  But coach Skiles can remember last season, and some of the things that made the Bucks tough, scrappy and competitive for most of it.

More Mbah a Moute, now that he’s able to play, and some renewed trust in Ersan Ilyasova are two of those things.  Here’s hoping Skiles remembers them tonight in the home opener against Larry Brown’s Charlotte Bobcats — no strangers themselves to scrappy play and tough D.

A must win home opener: Both the Bucks and Bobcats are looking to avoid starting 0-3. With a difficult Portland-Boston back-to-back on the schedule next week for the Bucks, 0-and-3 could very quickly become 0-5.

Nellie ties Wilkins… Moments of truth for Raptors, Bosh

There’s only so much thinking one can do about Andrew Bogut’s season ending injuries. So yesterday I spent the afternoon and early evening watching the Celtics-Cavs, Lakers-Spurs and the piece de resistance in the Warriors-Raptors game:  Don Nelson’s record-tying 1,332nd win as an NBA head coach.

I realize that rooting against the Raptors only serves  Derrick Rose on his mission to make the playoffs,  which in turn lowers the Bucks 1st round pick in the 2010 draft due to the pick swap that was part of the John Salmons trade. But this was about Don Nelson, our Nellie, the coach who took over the “Green and Growing” Bucks after the 1975 Kareem trade and built a decade-long legacy of winning that still stands as the Bucks franchise heyday, NBA championship or no. Nellie won 536 games in Milwaukee (40% of his total), as the Marques-and-Sidney, Sidney-and-Cummings Bucks averaged 54 wins per season 1980-87. The Bucks playoffs series’ with the great Sixers and Celtics teams became the stuff of legend, along with the coach, his players and those fish ties of his. Nellie loved being in Milwaukee; the city loved him.

A championship yet eludes Nelson, and with the Warriors up for sale, this could be his last season as an NBA head coach. Sunday he tied Lenny Wilkens (Sonics, Cavs, Hawks) for the most wins in NBA coaching history. One more win and Nellie goes down in history. With games against the Wiz, the T-Wolves and the Clippers on tap for the Warriors this week, I’m looking forward to win #1,333.

The Raptors (38-38) are a game ahead of the Bulls (37-39) and hold the tie-breaker. But after watching the Raptors lose a 113-112 shootout at home to the 23-win Warriors Sunday, a day after they did all they could to give away a game in OT to the 26-win Sixers,  I’d have to say the Bulls have the upper hand in the race for 8th. The Raptors predictably ran a track meet with the Warriors (exactly what Golden State likes) and were helpless to defend a 39-point barrage from 3-point land in digging a 12-point 4th quarter hole. A furious comeback led by Chris Bosh and Jarrett Jack fell just short when Sonny Weems, doing his best Larry Bird vs. the Pistons in the 1987 playoffs imitation, stole the inbound under the Golden State basket, passed underneath to Bosh as he fell out of bounds  …  and Bosh blew the layup at the buzzer. 

The young Warriors jumped around a smiling, dancing Nelson in celebration of win #1,332, Bosh (42 pts, 12 rebs) knelt along the baseline, head buried in his arms, Bird-to-DJ moment denied. … Steph Curry was brilliant for the Warriors, nearly putting up the season’s 2nd rookie triple double: 29 pts, 8 rebs, 12 assists.

The Raptors would probably make the playoffs splitting their last six games but that’s looking more and more difficult for this team. A good half of the Raptors rotation, Hedo Turkoglu included, looks ready for the season to end — and for free agent Bosh to move on to Act II of his career, which could very well be set in Chicago.

Derrick Rose Tank?  There was nothing for the Bulls to tank for after agreeing to swap draft picks with the Bucks, and they’re too good to fall in with the ping counters of the league anyway. Maybe that was the point all along in Chicago agreeing to the swap. That, and knowing that when picking in the teens and lower, it’s not so much where you draft as it is who you draft. The Bulls are reminded of this every day, watching their #26 pick overall pick in last summer’s draft, forward Taj Gibson, outperform the hobbled big forward they drafted ahead of Gibson at #16, James Johnson.  And then there’s 2008 #8 pick Joe Alexander wearing a suit on the Chicago bench, nothing if not a reminder of what can go wrong with a top 10 draft pick. For now, the draft can wait — Derrick Rose wants a playoff spot and we’ll all be better for it, Chris Bosh and the Raptors included.

The Bulls beat Charlotte Saturday and host the Bucks in Chicago Tuesday, the Bucks’ first game since losing Bogut for the season. This was going to be a tough game for the Bucks at full strength, the first game for John Salmons against the teammates he began the season with. With Luol Deng back in the lineup for the Bulls, and without Bogut to give Joakim Noah fits in the post… well, it’ll still be a Bucks-Bulls game, one that both teams need coming down the stretch. The Bucks can clinch a playoff spot with a win, which would also go a long way toward holding off the Bobcats for the 6th seed in the East.

Speaking of tanking: Nobody but nobody tanks quite like the Clippers. They’ve embarassed themselves at home against the Warriors and Knicks in the last five games, loafing through a three game road trip in between. Nobody even told the Knicks they had never beaten the Clippers in the Staples Center before Sunday’s game, and now no one has to.

Ray Allen: Lebron James had 42 pts and led the Cavs back from a 23-pt second half deficit after taking over offensive point guard duties. But the day belonged to Ray, who scored 26 pts on 17 shots (not including free throws) compared to Lebron’s 28 pts on 32 shots. Ray was 6-9 from the behind the arc, James 0 for 9 as the Celtics won in Boston, 117-113.  It’s good to see Ray shooting well since the All-Star break, bad news for Celtics playoff opponents. This has been his worst shooting year since 2003 when he shot 35% from three-point land after being traded from the Bucks to the Sonics. But since the All-Star break, Ray’s been back to his usual self, hitting 40.3% (54-134) . If he’s on, the Celtics are still one of the toughest teams to beat in the NBA (as the Cavs were reminded yesterday), a problem that becomes magnified in a seven game playoff series.

With two games against the Bucks ahead and the Hawks with the lighter schedule, the Celtics seemed a lock for the 4th playoff seed in the East. Now that Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Garnett will miss Bogut, the Celtics may be inclined to win out the season. If I were a betting man, though, I’d take the Bucks to win a split vs. the C’s despite the disadvantage in the paint.

Carlos Delfino has a website. But it’s in Spanish, so I can’t really tell you what he’s been telling the fans back in Argentina. It’s good to see him back in the lineup, though, recovered from the neck and head injuries that forced him to miss three games last week. I didn’t see this in the Milwaukee media over the weekend but AP talked to Delfino about his comeback game Friday against the Bobcats (14 points after a rocky start) and the injury itself. Interesting conversation, as the reporter knew more about what happened to Carlos than Carlos did — he doesn’t remember the rebound play under the Bucks basket or the foot of Udonis Haslem in his neck and head area. That would be the foot now referred to as Haslem’s “inadvertant” foot.

I hope to hell we’ve seen the last of the freak injuries to Bucks players this season.

Image: Brian ButchBrian Butch to sign with the Nuggets:  Ridiculous Upside’s been keeping tabs on Butch’s progress with the Bakersfield Jam of the NBA Development League and it seemed only a matter of time before somebody picked up the 6’11” Badger and his reliable 3-point shooting. The big man they call Polar Bear was averaging 18 and 12 for the Jam and was the MVP of the D-League All-Star game.  Butch had been playing as an independent, without an NBA contract, but all that’s about to change as the Nuggets announced they’ve agreed to terms for the rest of the season (and playoffs), as well as a non-guaranteed contract next season.

The Nuggets are thin in the front court with big forward Kenyon Martin’s recuperating knee and an ankle injury to the Birdman, Chris Anderson. Butch may or may not be on the Nuggets 13-man playoff roster, but he is eligible because he is not coming to Denver from an NBA roster (unlike PF Darnell Jackson, whom the Bucks picked up off of waivers from Cleveland).  Also on the Nuggets roster are 7-footer Johan Petro and veteran Malik Allen, a Buck last season. Butch will be the 14th player on the roster.

The Nuggets have been expecting Martin to return for the playoffs, but comments he made last week cast some doubt on whether his knee is making much progress.  The Birdman’s sprained ankle seems to have compounded the need for an additional big man, prompting Denver to make a move.

Down in the standings: The next three games make or break the Raptors, Bosh

Toronto Raptors' Chris Bosh, left, dunks as Charlotte Bobcats' Stephen Jackson, right, looks on in the first half of an NBA basketball game in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, March 29, 2010.It wasn’t so bad, being a Raptors fan for 24 hours, and they managed to overcome the locker room drama over the benching of Hedo Turkoglu to hold off the Bobcats in Charlotte, 103-101. And it was dramatic:

“Their postseason hopes suddenly in jeopardy, and with their $53 million shooter now an unwanted distraction, the Toronto Raptors came to Charlotte angry and on the edge of implosion.  … The Bobcats’ meek, nervous response showed this playoff race thing is still new to them.” — AP sports writer Mike Cranston, leading off his Raptors-Bobcats recap.

Dang, Mike. And most NBA fans think the high drama is in the West, where four teams are jostling for seeds 2-5. The race to settle 5-8 in the East may be just as good and not any less relevant, really, to the NBA title. The Cavs and Magic’s road to the championship runs East to West, and the beginning of that road is littered with teams playing .700 or higher basketball.

The Bucks remaining schedule is so difficult, it’s time to stop looking up in the standings and focus on the teams below them, all of whom have cake schedules and could make this too interesting for comfort. Besides, the Bucks play the Clippers tonight, and I certainly don’t want to spend any more blog time than I absolutely have to thinking about the Clippers.

The Raptors (36-37 and in 8th, just a game ahead of the Bulls) haven’t made any progress since 2008 when they finished 6th in the East (41-41), started slowly the next season and fired coach Sam Mitchell. With the addition of free agent Turkoglu, 2010 was supposed to be different — not a step back with 4th place even farther out of reach. 

So the blame has fallen on Turkoglu, who was benched Sunday in the loss to D-Wade and the Heat. Turk just wasn’t as responsible for the Orlando Magic’s success as people thought, and the Magic haven’t exactly missed the forward who was their weakest defender. In Toronto, where everybody from Jarret Jack to Andrea Bargnani to Chris Bosh can fill it up, Hedo’s solid offensive game is lost in the shuffle.

Offense never was the Raptors problem — they’re dead last in NBA defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) and allow more points per game than even the Knicks. If this can be laid on Turkoglu’s doorstep, I’ll bet you a contract extension for Toronto coach Jay Triano against Chris Bosh remaining a Raptor that says it can’t … even if he (Turkoglu) never was that good.  Not even Ben Gordon good.

That said, a split on a two-game road trip to Miami and Charlotte was better than half bad for these Raptors. The Bobcats in particular are an interesting matchup for the defense-challenged Raps, nearly their opposite. Larry Brown’s Cats may be one of the top four defensive teams in the league, but they have a difficult time putting the ball in the basket. The Raptors, led by Bosh’s 22 pts and some timely shooting by Turkoglu, put up 103 points last night and it was one bucket too many for the ‘Cats, even at home.

This was the right outcome for the Bucks, as it hung Eastern conference loss # 23 on the Bobcats. This will matter if the Bucks and Bobcats end the season tied, a reasonably good possibility given the difficulty of the Bucks last 10 games. Should the Bucks lose in Charlotte on Friday the season series would be tied, throwing the tie-breaker to conference schedule.  Bucks are 27-17 against the East this season, and would have to do a lot of losing in the conference for the Bobcats and their 23 losses to get the advantage in the race for the 6th seed.

The Raptors go home to play the Clippers, in the East this week to play back-to-back games in Milwaukee and Toronto. Then it’s down to Philly for a game against the suddenly good Sixers and back home to play Golden State. These three games should decide whether the Raptors and Bosh have any business thinking about the playoffs, because the next three (Cavs, Celtics, Hawks) say the Raptors are A) an afterthought (the Cavs) and B) a spoiler.

I think Bosh’s NBA stardom is also on the line in these next few games. You can only go so long losing more than you win before falling into the second tier or worse. If his Raptors are no match for the Clippers, Sixers or Warriors, this could be the last time we see Bosh as a centerpiece player in the NBA. Really. 

We went through this in Milwaukee with Michael Redd. Blaming the help (Turkoglu) is the first sign that the fall has already begun.  How’s that for playoff run drama?

Bucks-Clippers: I just realized the last thing I want to do is think about the Bucks two midweek games, tonight against the Clippers and Wednesday against the Cavs. At least it’s a back-to-back and the Bucks can get past these two quickly. And at least they play the Clippers first.

Having to play the Clippers at all in the middle of an Eastern Conference playoff run is kind of a distraction. But there are a few things the Bucks have going for them:

A) Hope that Carlos Delfino will return to the lineup tonight, recovered from the injuries suffered Friday at the feet of Miami’s Udonis Haslem;

B) That Andrew Bogut doesn’t want to be outplayed by Clippers center Chris Kaman; and,

C) The Clippers beat the Bucks two weeks ago in L.A., with point guard Baron Davis running a clinic on Brandon Jennings. Revenge to split the season series will be good for Jennings and make the plane ride to Cleveland much shorter. (Scratch Davis – he’s not playing. Steve Blake will start in his place. Typical Clippers – you never know who’s playing or not or who’s even on their roster.)

D) The Bucks are at home.

E) This is the last time the Bucks or their fans will have to think about Chris Kaman’s Clippers until next season. They’re the very definition of NBA distraction

Spoilers: Sticking in everybody’s business are the Sixers, who are suddenly playing like the playoff team they were supposed to be this season. They beat the Bucks and Hawks last week, and play in Charlotte tommorrow. Saturday the Sixers host the Raptors. The Bucks close their season series with the Sixers April 9 in Philly, where they haven’t won since 2007.

The Sixers rotation is filled with talented, athletic players, none of them the loafing kind (well, maybe Sam Dalembert takes a few nights off now and then, but never against the Bucks and Bogut). Mostly, they like playing D and, like a lot of defensive/hustle teams, will drive anybody who likes offensive efficiency nuts. They’ve had some injuries but forward Thaddeus Young (broken thumb) is the only player still sidelined as of this week. For teams like the Bucks or Bobcats, who like a good defensive struggle where the game comes down to turnovers and the battle for loose balls and rebounds (those 50-50 plays) the Sixers can be tough. They thrive playing the kind of ugly, possession-to-possession, Scott Skiles/Larry Brown style of basketball that breaks a lot of teams backs over 48 minutes.

Philly might wake up and realize that their season is over, but that would be very un-Sixer-like.  Very unlike an Eddie Jordan-coached team, too. In any case, it looks like the Sixers are doing exactly the opposite of quitting.  

“This is not a fluke. It is disappointing because we could’ve played like that the entire season.” — Sixers big forward Elton Brand.

The fluke may have been that they didn’t. And they haven’t lost their work ethic, according to coach Jordan. For future reference, here’s Jordan’s take on how the Sixers beat the Hawks and the Bucks last week:

“Obviously [in the wins], we’ve been making shots, but I do think we’ve been real solid in key areas. Whether it’s Andre [Iguodala] or Jrue [Holiday] locked up, or Samuel [Dalembert] locked up, it’s usually those three guys. They’ve been very good with their assignments, and that’s been very critical for us.”

Bucks brutal remaining schedule scares fan into rooting for Raptors

With 7:38 to play in the 4th quarter Sunday and the Memphis Grizzlies threatening to pull away from the seemingly exhausted, flat-shooting Bucks, Andrew Bogut and Brandon Jennings stalked onto the court from the sidelines with such determination and focus that anyone who saw it might have declared the game over right then and there.

Kurt Thomas, who had just turned the ball over by committing an offensive foul, headed for the bench, and Jerry Stackhouse, mired in an 11-game shooting funk (1-6 Sunday) that looks too business-as-usual to be called a slump, headed for the bench. Not to put the blame on those two reserves, both of them nearly old enough to be Brandon Jennings’ paw. The Bucks slide began late in the 3rd quarter with BJ and AB in the game and the Bucks in the process of making an 8-point lead vanish.  They were down 5 went Bogut and Jennings returned to the game. A 17-footer by Rudy Gay on the ensuing possession made it 85-78.  Coach Scott Skiles called time.  Enough was enough, time to see if Ersan Ilyasova, Luke Ridnour and John Salmons were into the game or not. They didn’t have much choice in the matter.

A rejuvinated Jennings quicked double-time into the pace of the Bucks offense, driving twice for layups. Luke Ridnour drove for one of his own. Salmons shot wasn’t flat anymore, Jennings was flying in for third layup and Ilyasova made the crowd forget about the airballs he had earlier tossed in zombie-like fashion from 3-point land.

Meanwhile Bogut challenged Memphis shots, took a charge on Gay, tapped back an offensive rebound, ate space in the paint and the Bucks found themselves clinging to a 94-92 lead in the final seconds.

The refs were apparently enjoying this spirited test of wills by the NBA’s new and interesting so much they didn’t want it to end. A phantom foul called on Jennings sent Mike Conley to the foul line to tie the game, which he did, and it went into OT tied at 94.   Check it out:

Didn’t touch him, did he? 

The Bucks, dog-tired in the 3rd quarter, seemed like the younger team in overtime (which they’re not, Jennings excepted).  They also made sure to get Bogut involved in the offense, and he delivered a running hook that served to collapse the Griz defense for the next few possessions, and that’s all it took.  The Bucks had open looks all over the court and wide open lanes to the hoop. They might have pulled away earlier than they eventually did but for a Gasol block of yet another layup by Jennings and a fluke step-out turnover by Ilyasova (refereeing at any level’s not supposed to be that good — it happened so fast it was difficult to see Ersan step out of bounds even in slo-mo replay, right though the ref was. Crazy.)

The Griz finally cracked, Zach Randolph got hit with a couple of dumb fouls trying to crash the boards, and the Bucks shot free throws to the 108-03 final. This turned into one of the better games of the season, and not because the Bucks schedule is so brutal the rest of the way that it was almost a must-win game. I said it when the Bucks stole the game in Sacramento and I’ll write it again — this was not a game the Bucks would have won 3 months ago.  

Bogut and Jennings willed this game into the win column. The knowledge that they can do this makes being a Bucks fan a hopeful fan to be with their first playoff together fast approaching. Jennings led the Bucks with a near triple double: 29 pts, 7 rebs and 8 assists. Bogut added 18 pts, 11 boards. And Salmons shot his way to 25. Ridnour refound his hyper-efficient groove and added 14 pts, 6 assists off the Bucks bench.

The Grizzlies starting five is fun to watch. Third-year-pro Conley, from the 2007 Final Four Ohio State team (Greg Oden) is at point; last season’s ROY runner-up Mayo is the shooter; UConn star Rudy Gay (2006 draft) is averaging 20 pts per game at small forward; there’s beastly 28-year-old Randolph (Michigan State) at big forward (31 pts, 15 rebs Sunday) and, at center, Marc Gasol, 25, younger brother of Laker Pau, but tougher and not complaining about Kobe’s refusals to pass the ball.

The Griz are 38-35 in Lionel Hollins’ first full season as the coach, as opposed to the interim/acting stints he’s served for the team in the past. Hollins was an assistant on Scott Skiles’ staff last season before returning to the Griz. That half-season in Milwaukee was the only NBA job outside the Grizzlies’ organization Hollins has held since the franchise came into the league as the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1995. Up until 2008, Hollins had coached in one capacity or another ever single game in Grizzlies franchise history, beginning as an assistant to Brian Winters at the dawn of Grizzlie time in the NBA. (Winters’ retired #32 Bucks jersey is hanging from the Bradley Center rafters).  There’s a post way back in the BBJ archives about Hollins, written when Skiles hired him in May of 2008, and you should click here to read more about it.  Hollins is a great coach and if yesterday’s game was any indication, he’s got the Grizzlies moving in the right direction. The Bucks were lucky to have him here for the time that they did.

“I have no problems or worries about how we are going to finish the season,” Hollins said after the game. “But I told them if you have this kind of focus and effort, you are going to win a lot of games and we are going to have a good finish.”

Yeah they are. And it looks as though they’re going to be tough to beat for years to come. 

Are the Chicago Bulls serious about getting into the playoffs or is Detroit really this bad?  The Bulls have nothing to lose — GM John Paxson agreed to swap picks with the Bucks as part of the Salmons trade, providing that the Bucks finish with a better record than the Bulls. That will happen. There’s no sense in the Bulls tanking so the Bucks can have the extra pings, so they play on.  While pondering this and other things, reading the Bulls-Pistons game recap at yahoo.com/nba, my eyes fell upon this little factoid in the “Notes” section:

Detroit is 2-14 against the Central Division, with both wins coming against Milwaukee. Besides being swept by the Bulls for the first time in 14 years, they were swept by Indiana for the first time in franchise history. The Bulls have beaten the Pistons 7 straight times.

Yes, the Pistons are that bad. Earlier today I saw a headline on the Journal Sentinel website about “Villanueva” and a possible “demotion.” I hit the link, curious to find out the latest bunk on Charlie Villanueva only to find that it was only Brewers pitcher Carlos Villanueva trying to convince a reporter that the possibility of being sent down to the minors doesn’t bother him. For a second there, I thought the Pistons were considering sending Charlie V to the D-League for some shot selection boot camp. How did the Bucks lose twice to those guys?

In MIAMI —  A big comeback by the Heat in the 4th quarter commandeers a game the Raptors had well in hand. Chris Bosh and team appear lost as Dwyane Wade makes play after play, asserting the inevitable.  That’s the good news. The bad news is that the 35-37 Raptors were the only team remaining on the Heat schedule that had any chance at a playoff spot. All that’s left now are 8 teams fighting for pings, and the Heat have a scaaaaaaary 3-game road trip coming up that takes them to Detroit, Indiana and Minnesota, their only departure from the dregs of the East. The Heat have won five in a row and are 40-34, just two games behind the Bucks (40-32) on the loss side. The Bucks hold the tie-breaker but D-Wade wants the #5 playoff seed.

The Bucks, meanwhile, hope Carlos Delfino recovers nicely from the neck and jaw injuries he suffered agains the Heat Friday and are battling a flu bug (Ersan took IV treatment a couple of days ago and now Charlie Bell is sick). Bogut seems OK after missing Friday’s game with a muscle problem in his upper back, and he’s just in time for a rematch Tuesday against Clippers center Chris Kaman, who had 20 against the Bucks in L.A. without his feet ever leaving the floor. 

After that, six of the Bucks last nine games are against teams fighting for playoff spots or position.  Team # 7  is the Lebrons on Wednesday in Cleveland, not fighting for anything really but wouldn’t mind mathematically eliminating the Lakers from contention for home court advantage throughout the playoffs, the sooner the better.  Zydrunas “Big Z” Ilgauskas, made his big return from 30-day buyout exile last night against Sacramento.

Game 8 is at Philly, where the Revenge of the Airball seems a vendetta without end.

Game 9, April 7, features the hopeless crusade of the 2010 New Jersey Nets. But it happens to be the second game of one of four back-to-backs coming up for the Bucks and has “weird things are going to happen in this game written all over it.”  

For the moment, the Bucks play four games in five days, are tasked with winning the tie breaker against 7th place Charlotte Bobcats (38-34) in Charlotte on Friday, a game certain to be a nasty defensive struggle against Larry Brown’s team. It always is. The Bucks then jet home to face Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudamire (got the apostrophe this time) and the red-hot Phoenix Suns Saturday. It’ll be the Suns 5th game this week, too, and they’re fighting for home court advantage in Round 1 of the West playoffs.

Given the Heat’s pushover schedule, it’s looking more and more probable that the Bucks are destined for the 6th seed — if they can hold off Charlotte in 7th. The Cats have won 7 of their last 10 games, have a much easier schedule than the Bucks and tonight host Chris Bosh’s Raptors, fresh off their 4th quarter stinker yesterday in Miami. The Bucks need to go at least 5-5 through this ten game gautlet, with one of the wins seizing the season series and the tie-breaker from Charlotte.*

For the first time in the history of the Raptors franchise, I find myself rooting for them. Let’s see if it does any good.

*In the event the Bucks lose and the Charlotte season series knots at 2-2, the next tiebreaker is conference  division record.

After a whole bunch of nonsense that I just deleted, the bottom line is that the Bobcats are very much in striking range of the Bucks, especially if the Bucks crap out and lose six games to East opponents the rest of the way — a possibility considering that the Bobcats, Hawks, Celtics (twice), Cavs, Bulls (in Chicago) and a trip to Philly are on the schedule. The Bucks’ conference record is 27-17. The Bobcats are at 22-23.  The Bucks need 3 wins against East competition to claim the tie-breaker IF they lose Friday in Charlotte.

If this sounds like one too many scenarios springing from the art of losing, it probably is. Let’s just beat the Bobcats Friday and grab the tiebreaker.

Bucks Weekend: Ugly, uglier, ugliest… East playoff peek

Friday: Heat 87, Bucks 84 – MASH unit on standby.

Sunday, 2:00 p.m.: Memphis Grizzlies @ Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks-Heat game at the BC Friday night was injury marred before it started, as the Bucks played without center Andrew Bogut (strained upper back muscle) and the Turkish clutch, Ersan Ilyasova (bad case of the flu). It started ugly, with the Bucks seemingly confused off the opening tap about who was guarding Dwyane Wade. It got uglier in the 2nd quarter when Heat center Jermaine O’Neal hyperextended his right knee driving around Primoz Brezec

Then it got real ugly. Carlos Delfino was knocked to the floor on a drive and then jumped on and stepped on — hard — by Heat forward Udonis Haslem as Haslem rebounded the miss. Delfino’s neck absorbed most of the impact of the off-balance Haslem’s weight, and he lay motionless for nearly 8 minutes before being carted off the floor on a stretcher and taken to the hospital for X-rays. The lowlight reel looks like an episode of M*A*S*H. Or Rollerball meets M*A*S*H.

The preliminary prognosis for Delfino sounds OK, as he has full movement in all of his extremities. The X-rays are still pending (UPDATE: The X-rays were negative). … It’s just too improbable and rare to see a player lie on a basketball court unmoving for as long as Delfino did, then be wheeled out of the arena on a gurney. I’m kind of freaked out writing about it, and could care less that the Heat won a game that the Bucks would have preferred to end at halftime.  As of early Saturday, the Bucks injury report looks like this:

Carlos Delfino: At St. Luke’s Hospital with pain in his neck and jaw, undergoing X-rays. Should be resting for at least a couple of days.

Andrew Bogut: The muscle strain in his back “doesn’t have anything to do with what happened last year,” says Bucks coach Scott Skiles. “This is in his upper, mid-back. It’s just a strain. I can’t imagine it being very long. It’s more or less just back spasms, and normally those things don’t last very long. I’m hoping he’ll be able to play Sunday (against Memphis).”

Ersan Ilyasova:  Received IV fluids in an attempt to clear out a bad flu bug and play against Miami but had to sit out the game. Delfino received IV treatments about a week ago for the same, so the bug is apparently making its way around the Bucks locker room. This may or may not explain some of the Bucks sluggishness of late (I’m remembering the 3-9 start on the Bucks last 50-game winner, 2001; a team-wide flu bug may have calmed coach George Karl’s ire, maybe a little).  Better now than in the playoffs.

Jerry Stackhouse: No, there’s nothing wrong with his shooting arm, it’s just Stack being Stack. Against the Heat, Stackhouse shot 2-10 from the floor, sinking his shooting  % over his last 10 games to 31.1%. He missed all three of his attempts from downtown, dropping his 3-ball success rate in his last 10 to 22.5%.  The so-called “spark” is gone, GM John Hammond, but that’s nothing that Dallas Mavs fans couldn’t have told you about 35-year-old Stack before you signed him. The Bucks as a team are shooting poorly from 3-point-land and shooting too many of them in these last two losses. It’s too easy to create the obvious nicknames out of Stack’s name to highlight the problem, so let’s just say that Jerry’s not helping.

Why isn’t my blog as good as Ball Don’t Lie? I try guys, I really do. Sometimes not as hard as I could, but check this out: Highlights of Charles Barkley broadcasting the Heat blowout of the Bulls Thursday. I was watching Tennessee-Ohio State that night, sorry to admit.

A lineup change for Memphis on Sunday?: Here’s hoping that Skiles puts Charlie Bell back in the starting lineup while Delfino is recuperating. Although Bell bottled up Wade twice in three days Jan. 30 – Feb. 1 — prompting Brandon Jennings to say that it looked like the Bucks had “a D-Wade stopper” — Charlie started the game on the bench and didn’t play until Delfino went down. Bell had another “stopper” game in Nov. against the Grizzlies’ O.J. Mayo, harrassing last year’s ROY runner-up into a 6-18 shooting night (15 pts) while scoring 19 himself in the Bucks win. The Bucks won in Memphis without Bogut and Luc Mbah a Moute, who stayed in Milwaukee recovering from early season injuries (Michael Redd joined the team on its 4-game road trip after the Memphis game).

Skiles may have signalled some regret about not starting Charlie on Wade, finding it kinda remarkable that his starting defenders couldn’t keep track of one of the game’s best players on the opening tip possession, a reverse layup by Wade. “We had two guys with their backs to the play, and another guy just standing there watching,” Skiles griped in post-game interviews.  

Not having Bogut in the paint to anchor the defense didn’t help matters Friday, but if nothing else, CB would have clung to Wade like a cop short on a ticket quota (hey, it’s better than the first simile I came up with). And he’s a better 3-point shooter than the Bucks who’ve been bricking it up from the Land of Ray and Reggie as if their career shooting percentages say it’s a good idea (note that John Salmons‘ shooting numbers say that it is a good idea for him to be shooting from downtown).

East Playoff positioning: The Heat’s (39-34) win in Milwaukee pulled them within two games of the Bucks (39-32) on the loss side, and the Bobcats (38-34) beat the Wiz in Charlotte to keep pace. While the Bucks have the tie-breaker against the Heat (3-1) and a 2-1 edge on the ‘Cats, they also have the toughest remaining schedule, not a bad thing considering that the prize for finishing in 5th place in the East could be a first round matchup with the Celtics. The first round opponent could well be the Hawks, too, but winning 5th does come with one certainty — it puts the lucky winner in the Cavs’ bracket for the semifinals. Optimal for the Bucks (and for the Cats and Heat) is 6th place, a first round matchup with the Hawks at #3, with the Orlando Magic to look forward to in the semis.

Let’s take a look around the East to see where the still-positioning teams are at, something I used to do regularly in these Bucks Weekends but got away from for one reason or another, probably not good ones.

Boston Celtics: Beat the Kings easily Friday in Boston but the rest of their 5-game homestand looks like a made-for-TV ratings push by the NBA. In fact, that’s what it is: the Spurs, Kevin Durant and the Thunder, the Rockets (who’ll be watching on Final Four night, anyway?) and a Sunday marquee vs. the Lebrons. The Celtics are healthy and playing well, casting aside a lot of premature speculation that they’re finished. Not these guys. The Bucks can’t play much better than they did in beating the C’s in Milwaukee March 9, and it still took some good defense by Bogut (on Paul Pierce) on the last possession to secure the win. The Celtics have become more focused since then.

But it seems many NBA observers, and Bucks fans too, are mistaking the Celtics more lax, health conscious 2010 regular season approach as a sign of weakness. Maybe it is. They know they’re not Dwight Howard’s age anymore. But even without KG, Ray and Rondo and a tired Pierce were a tougher out for the Magic in 2009 than the Cavs.

The C’s have a two game cushion on the Hawks but a schedule tough enough to make things interesting, including two games vs. the Bucks. The Celtics could drop to 4th and the Bucks could be the team that puts them there and sets up a Milwaukee-Boston matchup in Round 1. Although Andrew Bogut plays inspired ball against the Celtics big men, trust me — the Bucks match up much better against the Hawks. 

Atlanta Hawks: Lost in Philly to the Sixers, who apparently don’t realize that they’re sacrificing lottery pings with every win. The Hawks fell to 17-19 on the road, as big a reason as there is for the Bucks, Heat and ‘Cats to prefer the Hawks over the Celtics in Round 1. Reason #2 is the Hawks mediocre, 13th-ranked defense. Number 3 is point guard Mike Bibby, a good-shooting veteran, but no Rajon Rondo, whose rabid intensity gets old quick. The Bucks get away with playing a lot of Luke Ridnour against the Hawks, something Skiles does to keep Lucky Luke’s shooting on the floor. That doesn’t fly against the Celtics, who tend to treat Ridnour like a pinball. That’s right, I’m calling the Hawks soft, apologies to Josh Smith.

Three of the Hawks’ remaining 10 games are as tough as they get: home and home against the Cavs, and a game in Atlanta vs. the Lakers. The Hawks best chance at 3rd is to win on the road in Milwaukee and Charlotte, and hope the Bucks can help them out in two games vs. KG, Ray, Pierce and Rondo. The Hawks are a game behind the Celtics on the loss side and the Celtics own the tie-breaker as Atlantic Division champs.

Miami Heat: Dwyane Wade missed a few games last month but is back with a vengeance, determined to make his teammates better on this playoff run. “I’m just trying to be a team player,” he said in Milwaukee, as if to say his Heat don’t have a chance of winning a playoff series if his young teammates don’t learn to share the burden. Michael Beasley, he’s talking about you becoming a star. And Wade is right — he’s largely responsible for Beasley’s development and success, for now. (It’s a good thing for the rest of the NBA that Kobe Bryant doesn’t share those sentiments about his Lakers.) Looming on the horizon are free agent possibilities that say this could be Wade’s last season in Miami, though right now that’s not nearly as important as center Jermaine O’Neal’s hyperextended right knee (a Bucks-Heat casualty Friday). Wade and Miami have nine games left and the 8th place Raptors are the only opponent on it not bound for the lottery. The Heat just might win out and box the Bucks down to 6th.

Charlotte Bobcats: Larry Brown‘s team is currently 2nd in NBA defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions), and did I mention this is a Larry Brown team? The ‘Cats are in the middle of a five-game homestand filled with lottery opponents until game 5 next Friday vs. the Bucks, when the season tie-breaker is on the line. Shooting guard Stephen Jackson‘s been red hot lately, All-Star Gerald Wallace continues to play like one and has become one of the more efficient scorers and best defenders in the East. Center Tyson Chandler is finally back from injury for the playoff run but Brown continues to start ex-Sixer Theo Ratliff, which is weird like all things related to the Sixers. 

I still can’t believe Brown traded one of his favorite 2001 Sixer defensive pests, Raja Bell to Golden State for Jackson. But then, Bell was hurt and the Cats are seeking their first playoff appearance in franchise history, something Brown and owner Michael Jordan really, really want. And Nellie would have given them Jackson if NBA trade rules allowed it.  If the ‘Cats lose to the Bucks April 2, it’s a two-game setback and will likely banish Charlotte to the 7th spot and a Round 1 matchup with Howard and the Magic.

Toronto Raptors: Hello Cleveland. Goodbye Chris Bosh.