Bucks' Sunday surge mirrors rapid rise

MILWAUKEE -- Down seven points midway through the fourth quarter Sunday, coach Scott Skiles gathered his team in a timeout and delivered a pep talk that illustrated exactly how devastating this matinee display of mediocrity might be to the Milwaukee Bucks' season.

"He called it the turning point of the season," Andrew Bogut said, recounting how that mouthful of a statement helped inspire yet another victory for the Cinderella team of the Eastern Conference.

"Turning point of the season" is about as strong a phrase a person can use, and already Sunday there had been debate over whether the trade for John Salmons, the emergence of Andrew Bogut, the drafting of Brandon Jennings or the signing of Jerry Stackhouse could be pointed to as the defining moment(s) in the resurgence and the renaissance of the Milwaukee Bucks.

But on this particular day -- coming off bad losses to Philadelphia and Miami after a stretch of 15 wins in 17 games -- Skiles sensed his team was on the verge of slipping back into the same state of stagnation that has defined this franchise for the better part of the decade.

Hence, the over-the-top pep talk.

The Bucks rallied and went ahead by two, then were aghast when a questionable foul call sent Mike Conley to the free throw line for a pair of shots that tied the game with two seconds left in regulation. Milwaukee eventually fell behind in the extra period, but the Bucks came up with several successive defensive stops, Salmons scored five of his 25 points and Luke Ridnour went 4-for-4 from the line to ice the victory and keep Milwaukee in fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings.

It was victory No. 40 of the season for the Bucks, but their 20th since Feb. 1.

They have been surging unlike any other non-elite NBA team, and with 10 games remaining in the regular season they have a chance of maintaining that No. 5 seed and entering the playoffs as one of the few lower-seeded Eastern teams that might instill a little fear into whichever team they face in the postseason.

"There's a lot of excitement in this city because we're actually winning, and a lot of that has to do with our coach," Jennings said. "Since the first day of training camp he's said it's time for a change, and that's what we're trying to do."

After being a sub-.500 team from Dec. 6 through Feb. 22, Milwaukee's current string of 16 victories in 20 games has moved it from 24-28 to 40-32. The recent run has included victories over Cleveland, Boston, Denver, Utah, Atlanta and Charlotte, thrown Skiles into the coach of the year mix while doing the same for John Hammond in the debate over who should be named executive of the year.

Hammond was the mastermind behind the trade deadline-day deal in which Milwaukee acquired Salmons from Chicago (along with the right to swap first-round picks) in exchange for Joe Alexander and Hakim Warrick. Much like Dallas' acquisition of Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood, the Bucks have thrived in the six weeks since by having the luxury of an extra offensive-minded player, the same player who led Chicago's late-season surge a year ago when the Bulls got him from Sacramento and sprinted into the playoffs before falling to the Boston Celtics in one of the more memorable seven-game shootouts in NBA postseason history.

"John came in and gave us a lot of what we were missing since Michael Redd went down. We really didn't have that person we could go to who could score," Jennings said.

Salmons has averaged 20.1 points since joining the Bucks, nearly 4½ points more than Milwaukee's leading scorer, Bogut.

But as much as the Salmons acquisition has helped fuel Milwaukee's surge, Skiles says the turning point of the season -- before Sunday's fourth-quarter rally usurped what he said before the game -- actually came after a 108-107 road loss to Dallas on Jan. 26.

"We were 18-25, and we talked to the guys about finishing before the break, let's take some momentum into the [All-Star break]. We had 12 to go, and we told them we had to win eight of them, and we did. So the guys went into the break feeling pretty good about themselves," Skiles said.

Coming out of the All-Star break, the Bucks were crushed by 29 at home against Houston to drop to 24-28. But the Salmons trade happened the next day, some of the scoring burden was taken away from Bogut and Jennings, and the Bucks started rolling.

"You come out of the break and you get one laid on you like that, it could have created some doubt. But you could feel it brewing even back in those tough road losses -- you could feel there was something positive brewing. And you have to give the guys credit for hanging in there," Skiles said.

Skiles has a reputation as a coach who will allow his players to make mistakes on offense so long as they do the right thing defensively. The team has taken that trust and transformed it into a defensive intensity in which it has held opponents to 96.5 points per game, the lowest number since the George Karl-coached Bucks held teams to 96.9 points in 2000-01 when Milwaukee advanced to the Eastern Conference finals.

That points-allowed average has actually dropped to 91 points per game during the 16-4 surge, and the Salmons acquisition has allowed players to stick with their designated roles without having to take on added responsibilities.

So when the Bucks need a defensive stopper, they turn to Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. When Jennings gets a little out of control and some semblance of calm needs to be restored, Ridnour can provide it. Ersan Ilyasova has brought 3-point shooting and an energy boost off the bench, Carlos Delfino has been the team's second-most productive 3-point shooter, and Stackhouse has provided sporadic bursts of offense in a limited role off the bench.

Stackhouse There are guys here that have slipped through the cracks because they haven't been on marquee teams, but this winning has helped everybody.

-- Buck forward Jerry Stackhouse

"It was kind of like they picked me," Stackhouse said of his Jan. 18 signing. "I was sitting and waiting, and I had heard from a couple of teams that were not really in the playoff mix. I was thinking and hoping I would get a chance with a team that was close to winning a championship, but when they called and I just started looking at the situation, it just kind of made sense.

"It was a team that was just out of the playoffs, they had quite a few games left to play and I said maybe the aspirations of winning a title might not be here with this team, but being able to help -- as opposed to going to Boston or Cleveland and just being an insurance piece for the playoffs -- it was intriguing for me. They were already on a little bit of an uptick, and then when we added John we started to click even more."

By clicking again Sunday, the Bucks gave themselves a bit more of a cushion over the teams chasing them for fifth place in the East, Miami and Charlotte -- although the schedule favors the Heat down the stretch.

Miami has eight games remaining, all of them against teams that will fail to make the playoffs. The Bucks are still facing two games against Boston, one at Cleveland, one at Charlotte, and home games against playoff teams Phoenix and Atlanta.

So while holding onto the fifth seed may be a daunting task, the hardest part of turning this season around has already been accomplished. Barring an utter and unfathomable collapse, the Bucks are not only going to be a playoff team; they're going to be a playoff team worth watching.

As Stackhouse put it: "There are guys here that have slipped through the cracks because they haven't been on marquee teams, but this winning has helped everybody. With the resurgence and what's happening now, these guys are known a little now."

Not only are they known, but the surge has made them a commodity that can't be ignored.

And that is what makes the team's new unofficial slogan -- "Fear the Deer" -- so apropos.