Terry Porter has rallied the Bucks by preaching patience, not panic
The Bucks had lost for the fourth time in five games, a 117-111 defeat at home last Friday to the Nuggets that would have left most coaches apoplectic. Though his team had failed to grab crucial loose balls and allowed Denver to shoot better than 50% in each quarter, first-year Milwaukee coach Terry Porter refused to yell at his players or dog them in the press. "He could see in all our faces how disappointed we were," says Bucks forward Keith Van Horn. "We knew we had messed up."
Just two years after hanging up his sneakers, Porter is a players' coach in the best sense of that term—demanding but also understanding, he draws from the experiences of his 17-year career to guide his team. "He doesn't beat you up," says Bucks co-captain Erick Strickland. "He allows you to make your mistakes and then learn from them. He knows when it's time to rest, what you're going through and all the mental aspects of the game."
Porter's young Bucks are the Eastern version of the Jazz-picked to finish last in their respective conferences by SI, each has played better than .500 ball—and Porter, a former star at Milwaukee's South Division High, has much in common with his overachieving team. Drafted 24th by the Trail Blazers out of Wisconsin- Stevens Point in 1985, Porter developed into an All-Star known for clutch shooting, but only after he'd missed many pressure shots. He knows from his own tribulations that smart young players learn from mistakes, and his patience has helped his players, particularly rookie point guard T.J. Ford, grow up ahead of schedule. "Not having been a player in the league, I would have pulled T.J. after a couple of mistakes at times," says Bucks assistant Bob Ociepka. "Terry has left him in, and it has paid off."
The next challenge for Porter will be to rally the Bucks past the Hornets for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. ( Milwaukee trailed New Orleans by a game through Sunday.) It won't be easy. By settling too often for quick jump shots, the Bucks have been making it easy for opponents to grab long rebounds and run, run, run. The Milwaukee teams of Ray Allen, Sam Cassell and Glenn Robinson had the same weakness, and their fans remember the consequences: Those Bucks were tied for the Central Division lead on March 16, 2002, when a loss to the Pistons initiated a month-long free fall that knocked them out of the playoffs.
That won't happen this time- Milwaukee is five games ahead of ninth-place Boston, even after a 103-100 loss to visiting New York in which the Bucks blew a 26-point third-quarter lead—and this squad isn't divided by locker room lawyers and selfish stars. "We don't have a Hall of Fame candidate here yet," says Porter, "so our great equalizer is playing hard together." Top scorer Michael Redd is a quiet 24-year-old guard still getting used to his All-Star status. He's complemented by veterans Van Horn, Toni Kukoc, Desmond Mason and Joe Smith. They'll all need to contribute in the absence of Ford, who may be out for the season after bruising his spinal cord on Feb. 25.
In the absence of a vocal leader on the court, the spark must come from Porter. Last week he ran an extended back-to-basics practice the day after an 0-3 road trip, but instead of berating his players, he zeroed in on what they needed to improve on: ball movement and transition D.
Porter had only a year of coaching experience as an assistant at Sacramento before being hired in Milwaukee, and he has imported elements of the Kings' fluid up-tempo offense while relying on an experienced staff that includes Mike Shuler, his coach in Portland from 1986-87 through '88-89. "As a player I didn't think I had all the answers either," says Porter. "We have a lot to learn." The next month will show if Porter's patience has been justified.
Hard Work Required
Orlando G.M. John Gabriel was demoted last Friday because 78-year-old owner Rich DeVos wants to spend the next four years making an all-out run at an NBA title. Adding to DeVos's sense of urgency is the status of Tracy McGrady, whose threat to opt out of his contract after next season is an eerie echo of the 1996 free-agent departure of Shaquille O'Neal and the three titles he's won with the Lakers.