Milwaukee Bucks anxious for playoff experience
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
ST. FRANCIS--The playoff “newbies” are ready to get started Saturday night in Chicago.
Khris Middleton, Michael Carter-Williams and Giannis Antetokounmpo will make their postseason debuts in Game 1 as the sixth-seeded Milwaukee Bucks challenge the third-seeded Chicago Bulls at the United Center.
It should be a great experience for the trio, long and athletic young players at the center of the Bucks’ rebuilding plan along with injured rookie Jabari Parker.
“I think you’ve just got to stay calm,” Carter-Williams said of reaching the postseason. “I’ve still got to let the game come to me, be aggressive and try to be relaxed out there and just play basketball.”
Bucks coach Jason Kidd can relate to the emotions those players are feeling. His first postseason experience came during the 1996-’97 season, his third year in the NBA when he was with the Phoenix Suns.
Kidd has made 19 consecutive playoff appearances since then, 17 as a player and the last two as a coach, with Brooklyn and now the Bucks.
“It was against a (No. 2) seed in Seattle against Gary (Payton) and all those guys when I was in Phoenix,” Kidd said of his playoff baptism. “Just play, have fun and enjoy. The media attention is heightened, individual performances may be heightened, but the game doesn’t change.
“It was fun. We were the underdogs. Nobody was picking us. Back then nobody thought we could do it, but we (the Suns) took those guys to five games so we felt we accomplished something.”
Seattle, coached by George Karl, had a veteran team and won that best-of-five series against Phoenix, 3-2, after overcoming a 2-1 series deficit.
The Bucks would like to make some noise against the favored Bulls and will need strong performances from young players and veterans alike.
Chicago won three of four games against the Bucks and dominated the season series, but Milwaukee was able to claim a 95-91 victory April 1, ending a nine-game home losing streak against the Bulls.
“They’re a good team from top to bottom, starting with their point guard (Derrick Rose), all the way down to their center and their bench players,” Middleton said. “They’re a very solid team, physical; they like to play bully ball. But I think we match up well with them.
“We definitely took some positives out of that last game and some other games we played them in. We have a shot. You always have a shot in this league. We’re ready for them.”
Middleton has averaged 13.4 points during the regular season while shooting 40.7% from three-point range and hitting some clutch shots, including two buzzer-beating three-pointers to win games. He also has become a much better wing defender under the tutelage of Kidd and his coaching staff.
“I give credit to my teammates and my coaches,” Middleton said. “They’ve helped me out a lot this year, just trying to learn and trying to figure out how to play team defense and play individually. It all comes with trust with all my teammates.”
Middleton’s scoring became even more critical after guard Brandon Knight was traded in the three-team deal that netted Carter-Williams at the trade deadline in February.
“We figured out how to play with our new guys,” Middleton said. “Going into the playoffs with some steam is definitely good right now.
“My first two years I wasn’t in this situation. I was already going home. Playing extra basketball is always good.”
Middleton was in Detroit his first year and part of the Bucks’ league-worst team last season. Carter-Williams played for a Philadelphia team that won just 19 games last season and struggled again this year.
“I didn’t think I was going to the playoffs for a while,” Carter-Williams said. “I’m thankful that I’m here and that I get to experience it.”
Carter-Williams and Middleton both are 23, and the 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo is the youngest of the trio at 20. Antetokounmpo played in 81 games this season and averaged 12.7 points and 6.7 rebounds while diversifying his game.
“I’m going to try to get as much experience as I can,” Antetokounmpo said. “I want the playoffs to be as tough as it can be so when next year comes I’m ready and know what to expect.”
The Bucks (41-41) have seven players on their roster making playoff debuts and six with playoff experience for a total of 121 games. Center Zaza Pachulia has the most experience with 40 postseason games while a member of the Atlanta Hawks.
Key reserves Jared Dudley and Jerryd Bayless have appeared in 23 playoff games apiece, and O.J. Mayo has played in 20.
But the Bulls (50-32) have 434 total playoff games on their roster, including 105 by Pau Gasol, who has won two NBA championship rings with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Rose, who was injured in the 2012 playoffs, will be making his first postseason appearance in three years. He has not appeared in the postseason since suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament against Philadelphia that year.
Veteran guard Kirk Hinrich has 55 playoff appearances while Joakim Noah has 48 and Taj Gibson 44.
“We’ve got nothing to lose, really,” Carter-Williams said.