BY ZACH HAYES
Special to ESPN Wisconsin
The Milwaukee Bucks can’t afford to let an opportunity like this slip away.
In the next three days, the Bucks will welcome two main attractions to the Bradley Center: first a Monday meeting with the Western Conference leading Oklahoma City Thunder, then a nationally televised encounter against the New York Knicks, one of two teams they’re currently chasing for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.
Let’s face it: the Bucks are often overshadowed in the state by both the Packers during the winter months and the Brewers once Opening Day commences. The extensive lockout, a middling 28-28 record and lagging attendance certainly haven’t helped the cause this season, at least until the acquisitions of Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh provided a dose of excitement.
Milwaukee is 9-4 since the trade and have won six of seven coming into tonight’s home date with the explosive Thunder and superstar Kevin Durant. As Linsanity fizzles in New York, the Sixers flop in the second half and the Bucks continue to play unselfish basketball, a playoff appearance is suddenly within their grasp.
“Since the first game that me and Ekpe sat on the sideline and watched we got (38) assists anyway,” Ellis said. “You have a lot of guys who can score the ball and a lot of guys that can share the ball, so we just play as a team. Everybody takes shots when they are open and makes plays for others.”
Wins against the dregs of the league count the same in the standings as those against the cream of the crop, but victories against lottery teams Washington, Cleveland, Charlotte and Portland just don't have the same impact as upsetting the Thunder, a team many are pegging to hoist the trophy in June.
In order to knock off such a formidable foe, the Bucks realize they need to stick to the principles that are always so crucial during the last season playoff push.
“I think the team playing as well as we did in the second half defensively (on Saturday against Portland) is what’s important, especially this time of year,” Bucks center Larry Sanders said. “Teams that are going to sit down and play defense in the second half are usually the teams that are going to pull it out with the fatigue setting in.”
The Bucks recent success can be attributed largely to Ellis’ late-game scoring surges. Milwaukee’s shooting guard scored 7 of the last 12 Milwaukee points in their win over Charlotte, 16 points in the final five minutes against Cleveland and notched 17 more in the fourth quarter over Atlanta.
“We have to come out and match their energy,” Ellis said. “Take tomorrow off, get a lot of rest and come back with a strong game plan we know the coaches are going to prepare for us, and we just have to come out and be ready for (the Thunder).”
Sure, the Bucks still have eight games on their docket after this stretch – including potentially vital meetings with Philadelphia and Boston to end the season – but the Bucks won't have the same golden opportunity to capture the city’s spotlight and make a statement in front of their home fans.
“We'll reflect to this game and we have to be ready for Oklahoma City," Bucks coach Scott Skiles said. "You just have to move on. We have a great team coming in here and we’re playing a great team, one of the top teams in the league. So we have to be ready.”
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There are no games scheduled for today.