The Bucks just can’t shake the mojo that the Philadelphia 76ers have over them, and they fell victim to it once again Friday in a regrettable 90-79 loss to the (ouch) 2-10 Sixers in Philly. Throw the team records out — Sixers have won three of the last five matchups and 6 0f 8 since Scott Skiles took over as coach. Philly had won 7 straight before the Bucks seemingly broke the spell last January in what was likely Allen Iverson’s last game in the arena where he staged so many of his career highlights – the Bradley Center.
The Sixers have always been the Bucks nemesis, their greatest rival when times were good and Nellie’s Bucks in the early 1980’s were one of the best teams in the NBA — one of the best teams in history never to win a title, and certainly the best team in NBA history never to play in the Finals. Forget 1991, the year the 48-win Del Harris Bucks were swept out of the playoffs by Charles Barkley’s Sixers — there was something else amiss in Philly’s recent domination of the Bucks. It can be traced back to Iverson’s first shot in the NBA, an airball that bounced harmlessly out of bounds on Nov. 1, 1996.
Was the spell broken last January? Alas, no — “The Airball” is still exacting its revenge, and the Sixers showed Friday that they don’t need “The Answer,” Andre Iguodala or Sam Dalembert to stymie the Bucks — Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams will do just fine, shades of 2008 and 2009 when the Sixers were winning seven straight against the sluggish Michael Redd teams. Interesting to note that Young and Williams are Mo Cheeks players, guys who, like their coach in his playing days, have always seemed to light up when they see a Milwaukee Bucks uniform.
The 5-8 Bucks. The silver lining for the Bucks these days could be the realization that, for the most part — until last weekend — they’ve been playing fairly well against a tough early season schedule and coming up painfully short in a few close games (two against the Hornets, OT in Boston and Saturday in a very winnable game against the Thunder, playing without Kevin Durant, the league’s leading scorer. Add that one-point loss to either of the Hornets games as one the Bucks want back.
Yet it’s some consolation that their strength of schedule ranking is 12th in the league, better than everybody in the Central Division but the Bulls, with two Central games on the schedule this week in Cleveland and Detroit. On some level, the Bucks have simply been an unlucky team that can’t catch a break.
The Bucks schedule for the first 35 games is tough, at no time tougher than next week when they head west for a Utah-Denver road swing, then come back home to play the Heat and the Magic. No, it’s not much consolation, but the Bucks record should eventually turn around. It will probably take a while … and they’ll have to do some good work on the road in the west in December to mitigate the depth of the hole they’ll likely be in come January. Maybe they’ll even get lucky a time or two.
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 Buckswith 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 hereto 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 quartercommandeers 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 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.
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 % overhis 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.
What did the Milwaukee Bucks ever do to the Philadelphia 76ers? Was it drafting Julius Erving in 1972 when he didn’t want anything to do with Brewtown, and, a few years later — preventing the Hawks from signing him out of the ABA? Or was it drafting somebody named Russ Lee six picks before the Doctor? Did the Bucks commit some cosmic offense to the basketball gods in the first round of the 1987 playoffs when they failed to close the Sixers out in Philly, moving the Dr. J retirement party to the Bradley Center — ensuring that the Doctor would suffer his final loss in front of Bucks fans? Didn’t Doc owe us at least that, small enough consolation though it was for the pain and suffering he and Bobby Jones and Mo Cheeks caused in the 1981, ’82, ’83 and ’85 playoffs?
Was it the Milwaukee police arrest of Charles Barkleyin December 1991 for breaking some duffus’ nose outside Rosie’s on Water? A Milwaukee jury had the common sense to acquit Sir Charles of any wrongdoing, agreeing the punch was thrown in self defense. … Or was it this, on Nov. 1, 1996? —
Allen Iverson’s first shot in the NBA: (Unfortunately, some entity — the NBA, the Sixers or the Bucks — claimed protected rights on video of Allen Iverson and Ray Allen’s first minutes in the NBA, so the video evidence of AI’s first NBA shot and Ray Allen’s first made NBA 20-footer and first made NBA 3-pointer is no longer available … but read on ….)
I have a feeling it has something to do with that shot — the airball — #1 overall pick Iverson’s first field goal attempt in the NBA, his first shot on the Philly home court that he would ritually kiss before each game — an off balance fall-away off an aborted drive — drawing no rim in his premiere game for the fans who would grow to love him. That shot, the airball, even as his rookie Big East rival, Ray Allen, tickled the bottom of net with sweet jumpers, sinking both his first midrange two and, before he Answer could respond, his first high-arcing shot from 3-point land, that place that would become forever known as the Land of Ray and Reggie. The rhetoric of the 1996 draft — “Stephon Marbury creates shots for others/woulda been better for the Sixers” prognosis was out on parade, voiced in the clip by Bucks bland-alyist Jon McGlocklin — though you’d have to know that Johnny Mac was also taking a backhand swipe at the Bucks for drafting Marbury #4 and swapping him for a future draft pick and Ray, whom the Timberwolves had taken 5th. McGlocklin was one of the many thousands who thought the Bucks needed a “true” point guard, not a scorer, and obviously had similar thoughts about the Sixers, who had already had a young gunner — 22-year-old Jerry Stackhouse — in the fold. *(see notes on Stackhouse below)*
Iverson went on to score 30 opening night, 1996, but the Bucks won the game, 111-103 and took the season series 3-1, then winning the first two the next season in Larry Brown‘s first year as Sixers coach. But Brown and Iverson turned the tables in the remaining two 1998 Bucks-Sixers games, then went 9-4 over the next four season, beating the Sam, Ray & Dog “Big Three” teams 7 out of ten times. If the Iverson-Ray rivalry was on — and it was — advantage Sixers. Nothing screamed this louder than the bitter 7-game 2001 Eastern Conference Finals, still the NBA standard for crooked refereeing. Most of the shady stuff occurred in Philly but Game 4, the crucial game that would have put the Bucks up 3-1, was hijacked at the BC in a blur of calls and non-calls as the walking wounded Sixers were given new life. The series would live on in infamy, tarnishing Shaq’s 2nd title in LA if only the East Finals were more well-remembered. But they’re not. One of the NBA’s greates travesties wasn’t left on the cutting room floor of ESPN columnist Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball(publ. fall 2009) — Simmons simply forgot it. That’s OK, Bill. The Bob Boozer Jinx remembers.
Since Iverson dropped 5 of those first 6 games against Ray Allen, the Sixers are 28-15 vs. the Bucks, with many of the Answer’s career highlights achieved at Milwaukee’s expense, including a 45-point masterpiece in a 124-120 OT win in Philly, Jan. 3, 2000. For a few years, Iverson held the record for most points by an opponent at the Bradley Center (broken last season by Lebron James), dropping 54 on Michael Redd and Mo Williams, good defenders that they weren’t, more interested in filling up their own box scores than stopping AI from filling up his and winning the game. It was pure streetball that night at the BC, and Iverson was worth the price of admission. There was a down season for the Sixers against the Bucks after Brown quit and resurfaced in Detroit, and another in Iverson’s last full season in Philly, when he took one look at the rookie Andrew Bogut and realized that Ray Ray probably hadn’t been a Buck for years. The rivalry had become one-sided. The airball had been avenged, and it probably should have ended there, in Dec. 2006, when Iverson was traded to Denver for Andre Miller.
But it didn’t end there, and lately, the Revenge of the Airball has hit the Bucks hard: the Sixers have won 8 out of the last 10, and had won six straight until the Bucks 91-88 victory Jan. 27, very likely the Answer’s last game ever on the Milwaukee court that has been so kind to him. I was there to see it, and though Iverson gave way to Louis Williams in the 4th quarter, I caught a basketball high watching AI chase Brandon Jennings all over the court, both of them wearing #3, the young Buck honoring the old Sixer, his hero. I also believed I was witnessing the breaking of the Sixers’ spell. When Iverson left the team a couple of weeks later for personal reasons and didn’t come back, and the Bucks went on a 15-2 tear after acquiring John Salmons, I was sure it was over. Boy, was I wrong.
Wednesday night the Sixers, a dismal 24-47 and without two of their best players, Williams and Thaddeus Young, blew the Bucks out of the Bradley Center. Willie Green (16 pts) couldn’t miss until his team was up by 20. Rookie point guard Jrue Holiday (15 pts) proved unguardable for Jennings and Luke Ridnour. Center Sam Dalembert, as usual, locked down Bogut, with some help from 2nd-year big man Marreese Speights, and Dalembert was almost perfect under the basket for 12 pts, 10 rebs. Andre Iguodala played lock down defense on Salmons and was off to the races in the open court, where Iggy’s Sixers teams are at their best. Power forward Elton Brand, who’s done most of the damage for the Sixers vs. the Bucks this season (also singled out as the force of gravity slowing down Iggy and the gang since becoming a Sixer) didn’t have to break a sweat or make more than a shot. Brand was 1-7 from the floor in 27 uninspired minutes, while the Sixers young guns had a blast. Jodie Meeks, traded by the Bucks a month ago with Francisco Elson to the Sixers for Royal Ivey, Primoz Brezec and a draft pick, got into the act with 7 pts. The Bucks managed to make up a few points in garbage time for a 101-86 final.
Clearly, the Sixers’ mastery over the Bucks has extended beyond the corn-rowed one and the rivalry of a decade ago. Iverson was in Denver and Detroit and Memphis for the eight most recent Bucks losses, make that nine. The Sixers are now 9-3 vs. the Bucks since trading Iverson to the Nuggets, while going 127-155 (.454) against the rest of the NBA. But coach Maurice Cheeks had figured out that speed and nasty defense could be tough on the slow-footed Bucks, even as the detrus of Iverson and the rivalry remained, infecting his teammates with the necessary Buck-beating mojo. Iggy got it, and there was Dalembert (who seems to enjoy his matchup against Bogut). Guards Williams and Green were on those teams, and it infected Thad Young when he came along the next year. Now it seeems to have Holiday and sharpshooter Jason Kapano, too, after playing with Iverson for only a month. And, hey, look who’s back from a one-year exile in Minnesota — forward Rodney Carney, a Sixers rookie during the trade year. Carney killed the Bucks last year in a game at Minnesota, with 22-points and a 4th quarter 3-point barrage. I could mention ex-Sixer Kyle Korver here, too, but that would be redundant. There is something to this Sixers hex, the Philly jinx. The Revenge of the Airball.
If the fact that Wednesday’s loss was clearly beyond the red-hot Bucks’ earthly control wasn’t enough, take a look at how one other Sixer from those post Brown-Iverson teams did in the game. He’s on the Bucks (for now), and on Monday scored 32 in a classic 4th quarter shootout with the Hawks’ Joe Johnson. Yes, the Bucks salvation at shooting guard, John Salmons, predated even Dalembert in Phlly, playing his rookie year in Brown’s final Sixers season. Salmons played four years with Iverson under five different coaches (Cheeks the last one) shooting the ball five or six times a game off the bench if he was lucky.
Salmons was 2-12 Wednesday night in 30 mins against the Sixers and the hex, the Revenge of the Airball. He finished with 4 pts and as many turnovers (1) and fouls (2) as rebounds (1), assists (1) and steals (1). That airball of Iverson’s just never seems to get enough revenge.
*Note: Jerry Stackhouse started his career in Philly and played with Iverson in AI’s rookie year, but lasted only 22 games into the following season. I’m guessing that because he was unhappy playing second fiddle to Iverson and asked to be traded (he went to Detroit), Stack is probably exempt from any effects of whatever it is I’m calling this Iverson thing. Stackhouse was in just his third season when the Philly-Detroit trade went down, which tells us that …
A) Allen Iverson was horrendous to be around early in his career,
B) Jerry Stackhouse was quite the 23-year-old prima donna for a guy who would never go on to make All-Pro, or
C) Both A and B are true, and Larry Brown certainly wasn’t about to let Stack slash the tires on the Iverson-mobile.
What happened to new Bucks coach Scott Skiles and the Bulls last season? Not an easy question to answer. Chicago Trib writers such as Sam Smith, Jordan’s biographer, are still writing things like “we’ll never know for sure.”
Way back in October, Smith had written that the Bulls seemed a “joyless” team, “bothered by some unseen, heavy burden.”
Turns out forward Luol Deng and Ben Gordon did not sign the five-year $50-plus million deals they were offered, opting to wait a couple of years and go for Michael Redd-type contracts in unrestricted free agency. Kirk Hinrich did sign his. Suddenly some Baby Bulls were more equal than others. And nearly all of their names had surfaced in the Kobe trade talk before the season, causing a chill in the Bull pen.
Smith again, after Skiles was fired last Christmas eve. He wrote that Skiles became “disenchanted” with his team, dubbing it “the Larry Brown Syndrome” … “something of the opposite of the Stockholm Syndrome when the captives became enamored with their captors. In the Brown Syndrome, the coach rejects his captives and changes jobs.”
And here comes Kelly Dwyer for Yahoo Sports, picking up the Larry Brown Syndrome talk and predicting Skiles will be in Milwaukee four or five years before “flaming out and moving on” like he did in Phoenix and Chicago. Citing caustic public comments about players, Dwyer writes that even a “graying leopard can’t change his spots.”
I think Smith and Dwyer are being a little overdramatic here. It’s a bit too early in Skiles’ career to tag him with the Larry Brown Syndrome (Milwaukee is only his third job) or to bring leopards into the discussion. Dwyer gets a Bob Boozer Jinx whistle for use of a hopelessly tired cliche.
Besides, doesn’t four or five years sound great for Bucks fans? That’s how long George Karl lasted before he too rejected the team he had by trading it. Skiles will be our fifth coach in seven seasons. This current Bucks roster would disenchant any coach in less than than a year. It already has.
By the time Skiles gets a team he can live with and has it playing tight defense and team offense, we should be into 2010 or 2011. Let’s just win some basketball games in Milwaukee. And on the road, too. Then, and maybe then, we can begin to worry about the existential urges of Scott Skiles and the so-called Larry Brown Syndrome — as smart as all that sounds in a column on the sports pages.
I have to admit, my initial reaction to news that Scott Skiles was a leading candidate for the Bucks head coaching job was to wonder whether Skiles would be much of an improvement over Larry Krystkowiak.
I didn’t think so, mainly because there’s really no excuse for the Bulls lousy season, given that there was more talent in Chicago than anywhere in the Eastern Conference outside of Boston and Detroit. It wasn’t clear to me what went so wrong for a team that had won 49 games last season and swept Shaq out of the playoffs. It seemed like he quit on the team as much as they quit on him.
Besides, Skiles seemed like second or third choice for every team in the market for a new coach. The better coaches, Larry Brown and Jeff Van Gundy were not options for John Hammond, and it was going to be tough competing with Chicago for the number one choice for most, Rick Carlisle. As it turned out, Skiles was the number one choice all along, and Bucks fans should be glad Hammond moved quickly and snapped up the best NBA coach available — there weren’t many options out there.
True, Carlisle has won more, and managed to win 44 games in Indiana in 2004-05, the season of the Palace brawl (an incident that will stick with Carlisle everywhere he goes) but his success hasn’t been that much greater than Skiles’, whose Baby Bulls were fun to watch, even this season (not so much for Bulls fans). And the Detroit organization didn’t miss Carlisle much after Joe Dumars (and Hammond) fired him in 2003.
And then I did some research on Skiles and found this, one of the most hilarious stories about the NBA I’ve read in a long time. Would you believe Scott Skiles vs. Shaquille O’Neil during a 1994 Orlando Magic practice? Even better, the fight story as told to ESPN writer Chris Sheridan, is narrated by Larry Krystkowiak, the guy who had the balls to go after Shaq in the first place.
Here’s Krystkowiak’s verdict:
“I always looked as those two as two boxers, one a super heavyweight, the other a featherweight, both just ultracompetitive. They were packaged in two different boxes, but each had a significant aspect on our team,” Krystkowiak said.
And that, Bucks fans, is everything we need to know about the sort of scrappy trouble Scott Skiles brings to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Is it just me, or does hiring Joe Dumars’ right-hand-man in Detroit still seem a bit like hiring Darth Vader to manage your jedi knight program? It just feels a little off with whatever’s left of the Bucks force … but I’ll get over it.
John Hammond was Bucks GM for only about 5 minutes when a new rumor went into circulation — ESPN sources expect Hammond to pursue Rick Carlisle for the head coaching job. Carlisle, head coach of the Pistons during Hammonds’ first two years with Joe Dumars and is also considered a leading candidate to replace Jim Boylan as Chicago Bulls head coach, if Boylan is fired. Carlisle himself was fired from Detroit after some shaky coaching in the 2003 playoffs and was immediately replaced by … Larry Brown.
Still following this spinning wheel? It’ll come back around, just like Larry Brown, who, by the way is also reportedly interested in the Bulls job.
Carlisle moved on to coach Indiana, building an intense rivalry with Brown’s Pistons, and finishing with the league’s best record in the regular season. In the East finals, Carlisle and Pacers fell to Brown’s Pistons 4-games-to-2. The Pistons went on to win it all. The next season, the first Pacers-Pistons meeting erupted into the infamous brawl that spilled into the stands and knocked the Pacers organization into chaotic mediocrity. Carlisle was let go at the end of last year and is working for ESPN and running the coaches’ union.
If Carlisle is lured to the Bucks by Hammond or goes to work for the Bulls in Chicago, it would be his third Central Division team in less than ten years. Either Chicago or the Bucks would still be looking for a coach, which would make Larry Brown a natural candidate. Hire Brown and it would be his third Central Division team in less than 15 years. The Carlisle-Brown coaching web will have captured four of the five teams in the division, leaving only Lebron’s Cav’s unensnared.
Shouldn’t there be a rule against this sort of familiarity? Call it the “familiarity breeds contempt exception” within Division rivalries. Call it a coaching cartel – they’re out to corner the market on competition; it could be unhealthy for the basketball economy. Or incite another brawl.
Sure, the Bucks are working toward a day when the team actually finds itself in a rivalry, but is the team desperate enough to possibly fuel another Carlisle-Brown showdown?
If the answer from the new Bucks GM is yes, that’s the good news fans have been waiting years to hear.