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The bucks began the season with a 9-1 record and visions of their first trip to the Finals since 1974. They're ending it hoping they can avoid the lottery. At week's end Milwaukee had lost 15 of 22 games to tumble from second place to seventh in the East, only one game ahead of the Raptors. The schedule offers the Bucks little to be optimistic about: Of their final six dates, five are against teams in the playoff hunt—and during its recent slide Milwaukee was a woeful 2-10 against such opponents.
What's gone wrong? The most obvious explanation is the injuries to four of the Bucks' top five scorers. All-Star guard Ray Allen has missed 13 games with the left knee tendinitis that has hampered him since Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals last year. Though he was averaging 21.8 points at week's end, he's lost some quickness and agility. The same has been true for point guard Sam Cassell since Feb. 12, when he sprained his left big toe. "It's my plant foot, so when I'm trying to plant and explode, it's just not happening," Cassell says. "If this was December, I would be resting it."
Slashing sixth man Tim Thomas has been reduced to a spot-up shooter by a sprained right knee suffered on March 12, while Allen's promising backup, Michael Redd, spent last week on the injured list after spraining his left knee on March 26. Redd's status for the stretch run is uncertain, while Allen, Cassell and Thomas have continued to play, though they won't get the rest they need for full recovery until the off-season.
While the big three of Allen, Cassell and Glenn Robinson have started only 40 games together, coach George Karl refuses to blame Milwaukee's skid on injuries. That the Bucks' physical ailments have become the center of attention "almost makes me throw up," he says. "Great players don't skip practices, they don't let anybody know about [injuries], they don't wear the armor of sympathy. But that's not the gig today. The gig today is to talk about injuries, beg for sympathy"
If their physical woes are not the cause, why are the Bucks in danger of missing the playoffs? "We've had too much stubbornness and not enough compromise," says Karl, who wants his team to pass more and defend harder. "Our commitment has lacked championship intensity. This is the first time these guys have had expectations, and they're scared of them."
One of the loudest complainers has been power forward Anthony Mason, who was signed before the season at Karl's urging. Mason has repeatedly called for the Bucks to abandon their run-and-gun ways, pound the ball inside and make D the top priority. But he struck a conciliatory tone last week, saying, "I'm as guilty as anyone for the shortcomings of the team this year. I'm the new piece of this puzzle, so I figure it's got to be me."
Karl hasn't always helped matters. After a Feb. 2 home loss to the 76ers he hinted that his differences with the players were irreconcilable, saying that the team should either fire him or trade one of its stars. If the Bucks wanted to rid themselves of Karl, he gave them the opportunity when he was quoted in the April issue of Esquire complaining about the NBA's "anointments of the young Afro-American coach." Instead of quitting on him, however, his players accepted his clarification and apology, and the controversy passed. "George is an outspoken man, but he also gives you freedom on the court," Robinson says. "Me, Sam and Ray get a lot of responsibility. A lot of coaches wouldn't give us that."
Karl hasn't given up. "We're going to have to use the playoffs to catapult to a higher level. We can do that," he says. "[Wizards assistant coach] John Bach came up to me last night and said, 'If your team passes the ball, you're going to have a heck of a playoffs.' "
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