MILWAUKEE (AP) — Chicago native Jabari Parker has a good idea of how challenging it might be for Milwaukee to face his hometown Bulls in the first round of the NBA playoffs, even if he’s just a rookie.
The Bucks might stand an even better chance against their Central Division rivals if their star forward wasn’t hurt.
What Milwaukee has done this year to return to respectability is noteworthy for the personnel changes made during the course of the season and just how far the franchise has had to climb to get back to the playoffs.
“Man, it was special. That’s something that I wanted to accomplish regardless of any individual accolades,” Parker said this week about watching his Bucks teammates clinch a postseason berth.
A left knee injury in December ended a promising rookie year for Parker, the second overall pick in the 2014 draft.
“I had a little hand in that,” he said about the playoff push. “I say that I accomplished one of my goals so far.”
Few — if any — NBA prognosticators thought that playoff basketball would return to Milwaukee this year. Not after a disastrous 15-67 campaign in 2013-14.
But a season of change has brought about surprising success. The new ownership group that took over the team in April in 2014 is impressed.
“The goal of the owners (was) hoping to be on the north side of 30, and we thought it was more realistic that it might take a year or two,” said New York financial firm executive Jamie Dinan, who joined the ownership group last fall. “The team has really amazed us. The players’ energy, and what they’ve done, has blown us away.”
Parker was drafted in late June. Jason Kidd was hired as coach soon afterward.
Adversity struck in December, starting with the loss of Parker on Dec. 15 in Phoenix. The team was 13-12 when Parker, who was averaging 12.3 points, got hurt.
Rim-protecting center Larry Sanders played his last game on Dec. 23. He sat out because of personal reasons and then a suspension for violating the league’s drug policy. The Bucks waived him on Feb. 21 after reaching a buyout agreement.
The team dealt guard Brandon Knight to Phoenix at the trade deadline in February and acquired Michael Carter-Williams from Philadelphia to take over the point. There was a tailspin for a few weeks as the team adjusted to the new personnel, but the young Bucks recovered to finish 7-5 over the final three weeks of the regular season.
The Bucks finished at 41-41, their best record since winning 46 games in 2009-10.
“Not only is it more than we expected, we actually think we are laying the foundation that next year we’ll have a very good club as well,” Dinan said.
Kidd’s philosophy of using a deep rotation has helped weather the personnel changes. He puts just as much emphasis on his bench as he does on his starters.
Kidd is also not afraid make healthy scratches out of key players.
Twenty-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo is an emerging star whose athletic prowess has earned him the nickname the “Greek Freak.” He’s one of the team’s young building blocks, along with Parker and Carter-Williams.
Antetokounmpo wasn’t happy after being a healthy scratch on April 8 for a 104-99 loss to Cleveland. Whether the move was designed to be a motivational tool, Antetokounmpo the following night had 23 points and nine rebounds in a 99-91 road win over the Knicks.
All year long, Kidd has said the Bucks weren’t built around one guy, even while Parker, Knight and Antetokounmpo took turns on billboards around town.
And all year long, Kidd has stressed a defense-first mentality. The team’s length, including the 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo and the 6-foot-6 Carter-Williams, can bother opponents.
The Bucks were fifth this season in opponent field goal percentage at 43.7 percent, and eighth in points allowed at 97.4 per game.
“I just think that it is a testament to this team’s depth and the adversity that’s come. I think different guys have gotten hot over different stretches,” said forward Jared Dudley, one of the influential veterans. “This is a true team where you’ve had 1 through 15 play throughout the season.”
Follow Genaro Armas at http://twitter.com/GArmasAP
AP freelance writer Joe DiGiovanni contributed to this story.
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