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Skiles, Bucks unfazed by injuries

Logic dictates that the Bucks should have faded away by now.

After all, when leading scorer Michael Redd suffered torn knee ligaments in late January, who didn't think Milwaukee's season was on life support? And when starting center Andrew Bogut joined him on the inactive list two weeks later with a stress fracture in his back, shouldn't that have spelled the end? (For good measure, starting point guard Luke Ridnour broke his right thumb Feb. 5 and missed five games.)

But with the season headed into the final quarter, the Bucks are still hanging around under coach Scott Skiles. They entered the week with a one-game lead over the Bulls for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Milwaukee (29-33) is 7-8 since Redd went down for the rest of the season and 5-6 since the departure of Bogut, who might not return this season, either.

"The easiest thing to do would have been to mail in the season," forward Charlie Villanueva said. "We've been dealt a bad hand as far as the injuries to Andrew and Mike, but the fact that we've kept this team together and believed in one another shows a maturity on our part.

"It starts with Coach Skiles, though. He believes that whoever is out there on the floor can win the game, and that has become contagious."

Villanueva has raised his play to compensate for the injuries, averaging 21.6 points and 6.6 rebounds in 11 games last month. Combined with emergence of second-year point guard Ramon Sessions (18.5 points, 7.4 assists in February) and the versatility of proven scorer Richard Jefferson, Milwaukee has rung up big offensive numbers despite missing a combined 33 points from Redd and Bogut.

"The actors have changed, but the script is the same," Skiles said of his approach following the injuries. "We've picked up our pace a little bit, but overall, we've made pretty good offensive decisions. We're hitting the open man, we're hitting our share of shots and our turnovers are down. And like all teams, we're going to try to keep the ball in the hands of our best offensive players and live and die with the decisions they make. Good teams generally can weather injuries, at least for a while, because they have a good system."

According to an NBA scout, Skiles' system in Milwaukee is essentially the same one he used while coaching the Bulls to three playoff appearances in five years.

"The playbook he used in Chicago five years ago compared with what he uses now varies by maybe two plays," the scout said. "It's all about defense and sharing the ball."

Ah, yes, defense, a major weakness for Milwaukee in 2007-08 and Skiles' biggest emphasis since being hired last April. Though the coach bemoaned the team's defensive slippage lately, the Bucks have made big strides overall. After ranking 23rd in points allowed and 30th in field-goal defense last season, they have improved to 16th and 14th, respectively, this season.

"I think you have to get up and get into people," Skiles said of his defensive philosophy. "You can't allow people to penetrate in the paint and you have to guard -- the post-ups, the pick-and-rolls and the pin-downs. We do it a certain way. There are only a handful of schemes most teams are using anyway. It just depends on the personnel on a given night."

It also depends on Milwaukee's effort, according to the scout.

"Everybody says he's such a hard guy to deal with, but if you listen to him during games, he's an encouraging guy," the scout said. "He knows you're going to miss shots, so he doesn't get wrapped up in that. As long as you're playing hard, he's out there with you, or you're not going to play, no matter who it is. And they play hard all the time."

After a road-heavy schedule early in the season, the Bucks play 12 of their last 20 games at home as they pursue a playoff berth -- a welcome change for a team that went 28-54 in 2006-07 and 26-56 last season.

"The No. 1 goal was to become a competitive team. We've done that," Skiles said. "Now we're in pretty good position to be a heck of a story."

Orlando's road act. According to the Bucks' Skiles, the path to becoming an elite team is winning most of your games at home and splitting them on the road. The Magic's 48-23 road mark in nearly two full seasons under coach Stan Van Gundy shows there is more than one way to the top of the conference standings.

Rip Hamilton's influence. Back in the starting lineup after a failed experiment as a reserve, Hamilton scored a combined 56 points in leading Detroit to back-to-back victories in Orlando and Boston.

Nate Robinson's instant offense. His histrionics can be a bit grating, but it's hard to argue with the production (28.3 points in the last nine games). The Knicks' 5-foot-8 dynamo is averaging 17.0 points in 45 games as a reserve, second among bench players behind Jason Terry's 19.7.

The NBA's financial health. With talk of an impending lockout, speculation of franchise relocations, a trade deadline restrained by luxury-tax concerns and news of the NBA's borrowing $200 million to help teams, it's clear that the league's books are taking a beating. So, too, has the notion that a title is worth the smaller profits that come with temporarily bigger payrolls.

Minnesota's competitiveness without Al Jefferson. The Timberwolves are 1-8 since their leading scorer and rebounder went down, including three double-digit home losses last week.

Playing time for Warriors veterans. With playoff hopes gone, coach Don Nelson has started benching his veterans on a rotating basis in order to give his younger players more minutes. Jamal Crawford sat out Friday's loss to Charlotte, a move that did not play well with the shooting guard's agent. "What is the message that Coach Nelson is sending the team? That he does not care about winning?" Aaron Goodwin told the Contra Costa Times.

Roger Mason has hit several clutch shots and is tied for eighth in the NBA in three-point shooting (43.6 percent) while averaging 12.0 points as the Spurs' starting shooting guard. An NBA scout assesses how a player who never averaged more than 21.3 minutes a game before this season has become so vital to San Antonio's attack.

"He's a pretty tough kid, and you have to be pretty tough to live with Gregg Popovich your first year in San Antonio and improve yourself. Pop goes after people to try to make them better. With Pop, he's been told, 'If you're open, shoot the ball. That gave him a little confidence. Then, after he hit a few game-winning shots, all of sudden Pop's confidence in him rises.

"Of course, you have to play defense in San Antonio, and Mason is a good on-the-ball defender and he's smart off the ball. He can get into passing lanes to get steals. He's a good athlete and he's strong. You can't really post him because he's strong enough. And he's better laterally than Manu Ginobili, a better athlete side to side. Ginobili is fine running the floor, but when he has to stay in front of people, he has a tendency to Ole! people if you drive at him.

"Mason was always a good player in Washington, but he was the fourth guard and never got to shoot. He was a great find for San Antonio."

• "I'm a good basketball player, man. I'm not a good waiter."-- Wizards centerOleksiy Pecherov jokes to The Washington Post after having to serve his teammates a glass a juice for losing a post-practice competition.

• "Don't you have to make the statement that maybe they're better without [Andrew] Bynum? Why do we always say Bynum? How many games has he played for this team? I like Bynum. I think he's a great player. But sometimes you can have too much talent out there and it can kind of be confusing."-- Nuggets coach George Karl wonders aloud if the Lakers are more dangerous without their young center.

• "He was just camping down in the lane. I mean, if they're not calling three seconds -- I thought it was a rule, but I guess not."-- Chris Bosh bemoans Shaquille O'Neal's approach in scoring 45 points in the Suns' 133-113 victory against the Raptors on Friday.

• "I heard what Chris Bosh said, and that's strong words coming from the RuPaul of big men. I'm going to do the same thing [in their next meeting] I did before -- make him quit. Make 'em quit and complain. It's what I do." -- Shaq responds to Bosh.

NBA.com: This summer's free agents could be in for a rude awakening as a wave of fiscal caution sweeps across the league.

Chicago Tribune: Johnny (Red) Kerr was not only the cheerleading voice of Michael Jordan's Bulls dynasty but also a driving force in the team's birth.

New York Times: To some, zone defenses in the NBA are an abomination. To others, they have been a means to opening up the game offensively.

• It's not often anyone apologizes publicly anymore, so we need to recognize Lakers forward Lamar Odom for doing just that last week. Odom expressed his regret for helping get Alvin Gentry fired when the current Phoenix coach guided Odom and the Clippers from 1999-2003. "A lot of that team could have stayed together if my decision-making was better, and A.G. did a great job of giving me support," Odom told the Los Angeles Daily News. "I probably didn't uphold my end of the bargain, to some degree. I got hurt and I did some things to hurt myself."

• Former Bulls broadcaster Norm Van Lier, who was known for the tough defense he and former teammate Jerry Sloan played in the Chicago backcourt in the 1970s, always remained true to his basketball values. While announcers during the Jordan era in Chicago fell over themselves in praise of all things Bulls, Van Lier would bluntly criticize a team in the midst of winning six titles in eight years for standing around and dribbling too much. An understated icon in Chicago, Van Lier will be missed.

• The Cavs may dodge a big bullet if, as reports suggest, they are able to sign power forward Joe Smith, who was bought out of his contract by the Thunder on Sunday. As good as Cleveland has been this season, teams with size (Lakers, Rockets) have given LeBron James and Co. fits. With Ben Wallace expected to miss several weeks with a broken leg, the Cavs are lacking depth behind Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao. Smith may not be Wallace defensively, but he should help fill the hole in the paint.

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