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Playing for pride: No knocking off early, Skiles warns the Bucks

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McClatchy Tribune
March 30, 2009
— First-year coach Scott Skiles knows the Milwaukee Bucks showed no mental toughness last season when they lost their final eight games and finished with a dismal 26-56 record.

He knows the Bucks lost 13 of their last 16 games two seasons ago to finish at 28-54.


So considering how quickly the bottom has fallen out of this season, Skiles referred to the past when he was asked whether his players’ mental toughness was being tested.


“That’s been the reputation of our franchise the past couple years late in the season,” he said. “(The mental toughness) just goes. This is what we will be finding out right now.”


The theme in the Bucks’ locker room has changed from making the playoffs to just winning a single game. That’s because they have been in a serious downturn since just after the all-star break.


They came out of the break strong by scoring an impressive victory Feb. 17 at Detroit. Since then, the Bucks have gone 4-14 and seen their record plummet to 31-43, tied for last in the Central Division with Indiana.


They have lost five in a row and seven straight on the road, with their last victory away from home being the one at Detroit. They are 0-3 on their current four-game trip that will conclude Monday night at New Jersey.


With next season in mind, the coaches and management will be watching closely to see which players gut it out in an attempt to get a few more victories and which ones have already called it a season.


Right now, in a season gone awry, it’s all about mental focus.


“We need to make judgments in the summertime based on how guys handle this situation,” Skiles said. “When the games got bigger, how did we perform? And that doesn’t mean from a win and loss standpoint. But how did we perform? Did we battle for it? During the course of the game, if it’s a tie game midway through the third quarter and a couple things don’t go our way, do we fight back or do we cave?


”Those are, no question in our business, proper evaluation tools. We want to win the games right now; that’s what we want to do. But if we don’t and if we’re not playing the way we’re supposed to be playing, then that’s showing us something, too.“


Skiles was asked how much the players’ mental approach to the final games would count in the evaluation process over the summer as the roster for next season is assembled.


”An awful lot,“ he said. ”It’s very, very high (on the priority list).“


Without the injured Michael Redd and Andrew Bogut, the Bucks fought the good fight for quite a while but now they have nothing left in the tank. They’ve simply been outmanned in several losses but there have been other games they had in their grasp -- recent home games against New Jersey, New York and Portland -- and let slip away.


The Bucks’ victory total has already surpassed the total from last season by five so a case could be made that the season is a success already. But on the other hand, last season was the third-worst in franchise history so, as Skiles often says, it all depends on how high you want to set the bar.


One thing is for sure. These final games will give management plenty to talk about over the summer.


”You sit back when the season is over, whenever it’s over, and you look back on it and you go back and look at the games and really focus in on exactly what happened and make judgments accordingly,“ Skiles said.



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