MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee Bucks team that took the floor Monday night for the franchise’s final regular-season game at the Bradley Center looked like many of the other the Bucks teams that played in the soon-to-be-replaced arena’s 30-year history.
Since the Bradley Center opened in 1988, the Bucks have often fielded a representative team but seldom a great one. OK, they approached greatness when they reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2001, but that was it, one fleeting moment in an otherwise ho-hum existence. Operating under the we-must-stay-competitive-every-year mandate of former owner Herb Kohl, the Bucks generally were good enough to make the playoffs but not good enough to make noise once they got there.
Despite expectations inside and outside the organization that this would be the year the Bucks, led by burgeoning superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, would escape that rut, it hasn’t happened. They did clinch a second consecutive playoff berth, but the Bucks can be no better than the sixth seed in the East and the big question during the final week of the season was which conference heavyweight — Toronto, Boston, Cleveland or Philadelphia — they would meet in the opening round. Having to open a series on the road against a top team has led to the Bucks going one-and-done in 11 of the 13 seasons they’ve made the playoffs since the Bradley Center opened.
But while the focus has been on where the Bucks will finish and who they will play, it instead should be on who they are and how they will play. With one regular-season game left following their 102-86 victory over the tanking Orlando Magic on Monday night, the Bucks have one last chance to make the Bradley Center rock during the playoffs.
Whoever the Bucks play, the outcome could impact the direction of the franchise. Winning a playoff series might convince people they are on the right track after an in-season coaching change from Jason Kidd to Joe Prunty and a lot of up-and-down play that has left their record at 44-37, which is only a marginal improvement over last season.
“We could be a force,” forward Jabari Parker said. “We just have to utilize all our strengths and we just have to play together.”
Prunty, too, is optimistic after the Bucks won for the seventh time in 10 games, the last two without Antetokounmpo. The biggest reason for Prunty’s optimism?
“The guys in the locker room,” he said. “We have all kinds of confidence. We’ve played very well against very good teams throughout the league. We’ve played very well here recently. Our confidence is very high.”
Actually, there are more tangible reasons the Bucks might be able to make some noise when the playoffs start.
For the first time all season, they should have all their key players healthy and ready to go. Guard Malcolm Brogdon went down with a thigh injury on Feb. 1, one day before Parker returned from knee surgery. Brogdon returned Monday night, playing 14 minutes, and Parker continued his game-to-game improvement, scoring 16 points and grabbing nine rebounds.
Also, the Bucks are playing some decent basketball. Even in the three losses in their past 10 games, they had the lead in the fourth quarter, though blowing an 18-point fourth-quarter lead at Denver will stick with them for awhile.
“The biggest thing for us is we are trying to play quality basketball,” Prunty said. “Over the last 10 games, probably even a little bit longer than that, we’ve played very well. In that stretch I think we’re 7-3 and the games that we lost we were right there for the most part and we had our opportunities. I think we’re moving the ball well. Obviously, we’ve talked about the defense and some of the things that we need to do better. … Overall, we want to keep playing the right way. We’ve stressed that. We know how we want to do it. We talk about offensively, get out, run, move the ball, share it. Defensively, get stops. We know we can’t give up both the 3 and the paint. … For us, it’s about playing well and playing the right way.”
Prunty clearly is coaching with the playoffs in mind. He has been experimenting with small-ball lineups to get his best players on the court, playing Tony Snell more minutes than he deserves trying to get his 3-point stroke untracked and sitting Antetokounmpo the past two games to rest his sore ankle. Meanwhile, guard Eric Bledsoe continued his outstanding play, registering a triple-double against the Magic, and late-season acquisitions Shabazz Muhammad, Brandon Jennings and Tyler Zeller are contributing off the bench.
One potential problem is that the Bucks’ key players won’t really play together until the playoffs start, especially if Antetokounmpo sits out the final game at Philadelphia.
“It’s not ideal, but it’s where we are,” Prunty said.
On the other hand, Antetokounmpo has been limping around for about a month, so a week’s rest prior to the playoffs should do him some good.
“It’s great because we know when Giannis gets a couple days rest, he comes out like he’s shot out of a cannon,” center John Henson said. “I think that’s going to be scary for our first-round opponent.”
It’s been quite awhile since the Bucks scared anyone in the playoffs.