Scott Skiles is a screamer.
"One of the best in the league," Bucks forward Kurt Thomas said with a sly smile.
On Monday night against Atlanta, the Milwaukee coach was presented with a prime opportunity to exercise his vocal cords. Midway through the third quarter, his team trailed the Hawks by 12 points, a deficit that might as well have been triple that. His best players, Brandon Jennings and Andrew Bogut, couldn't buy a bucket. His defense was helpless to stop Atlanta. But during a timeout, Skiles' message to his team was surprisingly simple: Dig in.
"He told us they were making some tough shots," forward Luc Mbah a Moute said. "He said, 'Share the ball, keep trying to get stops and we would be OK.' "
He was right. Within minutes the lead was cut from 12 to seven, and by early in the fourth quarter it had been erased entirely. Behind another superhuman performance from John Salmons (32 points), the Bucks rallied to defeat the Hawks 98-95, sending a strong message to a potential first-round opponent.
There have been myriad storylines unfolding in Milwaukee this season. There is Bogut, the Aussie center who has rebounded from an injury-plagued 2008-09 campaign to become one of the top pivots in the NBA. There is Jennings, the European guinea pig who has emerged as a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year. There is Salmons, who for the second consecutive season has sparked a team's playoff push.
Skiles' stewardship, however, cannot be overlooked. Three years removed from being unceremoniously dumped by Chicago, Skiles has molded the Bucks from lottery locks into legitimate playoff contenders.
Part of the reason Skiles works well with these players is because he relates to them. In his playing days, Skiles was a throwback. He played point guard like a strong safety and carved out a 10-year NBA career with toughness and hard work. His coach at Michigan State, Jud Heathcote, called him "the most intense, competitive player I've ever coached." His trainer in Orlando, LennyCurrier, said Skiles had an uncommonly high threshold for pain. His general manager in Indiana, Donnie Walsh, once had to talk him out of retirement after Skiles abruptly quit the team because his teammates weren't as committed to winning as he was.
Some of his own players share those same qualities. Thomas is annually one of the most sought-after big men because of his mental toughness and physical style of play. Jerry Stackhouse has been a part of seven playoff teams and is regarded as one of the tougher swingmen in the league.
It's not just the vets, either. At 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds, Mbah a Moute, 23, routinely gives up size and strength to other forwards. But there is Mbah a Moute, banging bodies with Carmelo Anthony. There is Mbah a Moute, contesting Joe Johnson's fourth-quarter shots. Skiles often employs Mbah a Moute like a heat-seeking missile on the opponent's best player because the second-year forward is always up for the challenge.
Skiles' toughness as a player, however, hasn't made him inflexible as a coach. Hard-nosed defense is a hallmark of all of Skiles' teams, and this one is no different. The Bucks rank seventh in the NBA in points allowed (96.3) and fourth in points allowed per 100 possessions (102.8). His schemes are good, but if someone thinks they can be better, he will listen. During a January game against Dallas, the Bucks were getting torched by guard Jason Terry, who was taking advantage of Milwaukee's unwillingness to switch. On the advice of a few players, Skiles changed strategy and allowed the team to switch, a move that, according to Thomas, slowed down Terry significantly.
"He has his philosophies," Thomas said. "And if you don't defend, you're not going to play. But he's willing to listen to what anyone has to say."
Nor does Skiles simply dictate the offense. He has granted Jennings multiple responsibilities with running his system and rarely micromanages the game. When Skiles does call something, however, players listen. Stackhouse calls Skiles an excellent X's-and-O's coach and praises him for his ability to draw up effective plays under pressure.
"He puts you in a great position," Stackhouse said. "That's all you can ask for. He does a great job of coming up with the right play for every situation."
His players, of course, endorse Skiles' candidacy for Coach of the Year.
"Definitely," Stackhouse said.
"No question," Mbah a Moute said.
And as effective as Scott Brooks has been with the upstart Thunder, their promising finish to last season foreshadowed their success this season. The Bucks had no such indications, making the job Skiles has done that much more remarkable.