Saturday December 1st, 2007

Michael Redd sat dejectedly in his locker, a distant look painted across his face. Nearly an hour had passed since Redd's Milwaukee Bucks blew a 12-point lead to lose to the New York Knicks; but Redd sat motionless, unable to bring himself to change out of his towel. "This was a pivotal week for us," said Redd in the general direction of no one in particular.

Indeed, if Milwaukee falls short of winning the Central Division, they can look back on the fourth week of the season as the one that got away. On Monday, Milwaukee was the darling of the league, the surprise leaders of the Central with a 7-4 record and riding a five-game winning streak. By virtue of a favorable schedule, the Bucks were staring at a golden opportunity to put some distance between themselves and the Detroit Pistons.

First, came a home loss to Philadelphia on Tuesday. Then a defeat in Atlanta on Wednesday. On Friday, the Bucks dominated the Knicks for three quarters before their offense inexplicably stagnated in the fourth quarter (11 total points), succumbing to a New York team that some 24 hours earlier fell to Boston by 45. Instead of flying home to face Detroit with an eight-game winning streak, the Bucks are losers of three straight and stand in the far-too-comfortable confines of fourth place in the Central.

"I'm sick of hearing that it's early in the season," said Redd. "We have to win."

No NBA champion is crowned in November, but the early part of the season is a time when pretenders are weeded from the pack. And the Bucks, who haven't won their division since 2001, just failed their first test.

"I know exactly what you are saying," said Bucks head coach Larry Krystkowiak when asked about the possibility of having blown a chance to pull ahead. "It has been frustrating. I think we won a couple of games recently, but things had to line up for us to win them. All of a sudden we woke up on Monday morning in first place in the Central Division. I'm not sure we were ready to handle it. It was uncharted territory for us."

Just being mentioned as a legitimate contender is uncharted territory for Milwaukee, at least recently. Last season the Bucks were decimated by injuries and stumbled to a 28-54 finish. When healthy, however, Milwaukee was a formidable offensive unit; which is why Krystkowiak, who replaced the fired Terry Stotts at midseason, has used training camp, practice and subliminal messaging (I'm kidding about the last one ... I think) to preach and teach defense. The results have been mixed: The Bucks are holding opponents to 46 percent shooting, down from 47.9 percent last season. But that number still puts Milwaukee in the bottom third in the league in that category.

"We've got a ways to go there," said Krystkowiak. "We're blocking some more shots, there is more activity. But we have had some letdowns. I don't think we're satisified."

Still, Milwaukee is capable of simply outgunning opponents, which is precisely what it did for three quarters on Friday. The Bucks are active inside and can send waves of big bodies at opponents, including Chinese phenom Yi Jianlian. They also have Redd, one of the league's premier shooters, who morphs more into a franchise player with each passing game.

But they are relatively young and overwhelmingly inexperienced. Against the Knicks, the Bucks abandoned the fluid offense that helped them build a seemingly insurmountable lead and became an isolation team.

"What are they doing?" asked a scout seated nearby. "They're just pounding the ball into the floor."

After draining a deep three midway through the fourth quarter, Redd mouthed to point guard Maurice Williams to "give me the ball." Williams did and Redd proceeded to miss four of his next five shots, including a 25-foot shot from the corner that would have sent the game into overtime. New York, paced by Jamal Crawford (25 points) and Fred Jones, tallied 26 fourth-quarter points, helping the Knicks eke out their fourth victory of the season.

It doesn't get any easier for Milwaukee, either. After playing Detroit on Saturday, the Bucks embark on a five-game, seven-day roadie. It may not define their season, but the results could very well decide whether the Bucks are legitimate players in the playoff picture.

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