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Bucks, Celtics two teams on opposing paths as playoffs begin

BOSTON -- The Bucks charged into the postseason like a stockcar across the checkered flag, while the Celtics backed in cautiously, like a mini-van negotiating a compact parking space. Boston coach Doc Rivers has had little choice but to approach the postseason while looking over his shoulder, alternating between the gas and the brake in hope of avoiding a major deductible.

Further convoluting this difficult season, Rivers faced questions Wednesday about his future following a Boston Herald report that he will decide this summer whether to quit the Celtics in order to return home to Orlando after six years of commuting back and forth as an itinerant coach. This is a decision Rivers faces every summer. The Celtics don't want him to leave. Last year, they enrolled in the Orlando summer league in order to give Rivers an extra week at home and further entice him to return this season.

If Rivers were to leave -- a decision he insists won't be made until after the playoffs -- then an obvious candidate to replace him would be Kevin McHale, based on his Celtic pedigree, his brief but impressive runs coaching the Timberwolves in 2005 and last season, and his brotherly relationship with Celtics GM Danny Ainge. This would not be about Ainge taking care of a friend: A strong relationship between coach and GM is paramount, as Ainge and Rivers have demonstrated while transforming the Celtics from bottom-dwellers to champions over their time together. (News of the postgame "altercation'' between Bulls VP John Paxson and coach Vinny Del Negro is an extreme example of what can go wrong when an owner dictates the hiring of a coach.)

Rivers rates among the league's elite coaches, both for his tactics and his talent for dealing with players, and no one will be pushing him out the door because his qualities will be so difficult to replace. But two things are certain if he were to depart: He would become the LeBron James of his field, with his name linked to every team seeking to hire a new coach; and speculation of a McHale return to Boston would flood the biosphere.

As Rivers deflected questions about his future before a 106-95 loss to Milwaukee, it became obvious that the 82nd game of the season was not a meaningless occasion after all. It was instead a theatrical display of two teams headed along opposing tracks. While the elderly Celtics rested five players from their playoff rotation (including every starter but Rajon Rondo) in pursuit of preserving them for the second season, the Bucks went all-out to win for the 46th time. "We didn't try to lay an egg, that's not who we are,'' said Jerry Stackhouse, a midseason signing who provided 17 points off the bench Wednesday. "We didn't want to go into the playoffs on a three-game losing streak.''

The Bucks have had plenty of reasons to accept the worst outcome this season, between the knee injuries to star shooting guard Michael Redd, the league-wide ambivalence toward 20-year-old rookie point guard Brandon Jennings and GM John Hammond's pursuit of a leaner, more flexible payroll to create a sustainable roster for the long run. When other teams were seeking to dump salary at midseason, however, Hammond made the expensive decision to acquire John Salmons, who averaged 19.9 points while helping the Bucks win 22 of their final 30 games to earn the No. 6 seed in the East.

Bucks coach Scott Skiles was pushing for the Salmons trade in hope of creating playoff experience for Jennings and his young teammates. "That's why for Andrew [Bogut] it's such a shame he can't go through this,'' Skiles said of Bogut, whose breakout season ended two weeks ago when he suffered season-ending injuries to his right elbow, wrist and hand in a fall under the basket. "A playoff series is a valuable developing experience, and it's critical for a guy like Brandon or Ersan [Ilyasova] to get that.''

Skiles understands why some teams face no other option than to hope for success in the lottery and rebuild with a high draft pick. But he and Hammond took the opposite course of trying to win now in order to accelerate the development of young players already under contract. "People think it's shortsighted if you try to get guys in [to the playoffs],'' said Skiles. "I think it's shortsighted if you try to do it the other way. ...For us the long view is we're here now, we're going to be playing postseason basketball, and our guys are going to take away a tremendous experience. And it's not beyond the realm of possibility that we win a series, and what an experience that would be. So for the growth of our guys, it's hugely important.''

An upset of the No. 3 Atlanta Hawks is highly unlikely without Bogut, but Skiles is looking forward to seeing how his players fight through the next week or two. "The older you get, the more you realize that overcoming difficulties oftentimes is the way your character is shaped,'' he said. "[Bogut] went down in an incredibly, incredibly horrific fall. It lasted about a second, but it was one of those deals, it seemed like it lasted 30 seconds -- he was exposed up in the air, our guys saw it, it was clear right away he was out. And our guys had a tremendous response to it. There was no real head-hanging, and they've rallied around him a little bit. Obviously we'd rather have Andrew playing -- he's a big part of our team -- but we can still show ourselves well while he's out.''

At 6-foot-1 and about 170 pounds, Jennings estimates he has lost five pounds over the season while becoming the first Bucks rookie in 40 years to start all 82 games. A team like the Celtics may go into the playoffs with a lot of experience, but the Bucks hope Jennings' youth will help him overcome everything he doesn't know. He looked alarmingly fresh Wednesday in spite of his mileage over this long season.

"He ain't but 10 years old,'' said Stackhouse, who is 35. "What does he got to be tired about? He's going to be revved up, and hopefully he'll be a step faster than everybody else.''

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