Bucks at best when Kukoc gets minutes
Just give him some time
By CHARLES F. GARDNER
Posted: Feb. 11, 2005
St. Francis - Call him Ten-minute Toni, if you must.
Toni Kukoc has been a key in some of the Bucks’ best victories.
The truth is, Milwaukee Bucks veteran Toni Kukoc has played so well lately that his time in the lineup has been extended to 15, even 27 or 33 minutes. And he is staying on the floor at the end of games, with the outcome on the line, and helping the Bucks win.
And that 10-minute bit? Well, that comes about because the Bucks have a gaudy 11-4 record this season when the 36-year-old forward plays at least 10 minutes in a game.
Kukoc has overcome a hip problem that sidelined him for 23 games earlier in the season, and is again showing the flair and passing skills that have endeared him to Bucks fans since his arrival in the fall of 2002.
It's no coincidence that the Bucks have won four of their last five games, giving them a chance to go into the National Basketball Association all-star break next weekend on a positive note. The Bucks play three more games before the break, starting tonight at home against the Atlanta Hawks.
"I think finally he's feeling a lot better physically," Bucks general manager Larry Harris said. "He's getting some consistent minutes to get into a rhythm.
"With all the other injuries that have taken place, it has allowed him to get back on the floor and play some major minutes."
Kukoc made the most of his opportunity when starter Desmond Mason was out with the flu on Feb. 1. The 6-foot-11 native of Split, Croatia, was inserted in the starting lineup at small forward and played 33 productive minutes, contributing nine points, six rebounds and five assists in the Bucks' 91-86 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Since then, Kukoc has come off the bench and provided a spark, along with fellow reserves Mike James, Zaza Pachulia, Keith Van Horn and Erick Strickland.
"We're getting used to each other," Kukoc said after the Bucks' practice Friday. "We had some injuries that kind of messed up the lineups. Lately, we're pretty sure when we go in what we've got to do. We're getting in the right positions, getting the chemistry right, and that's why we're winning games."
With Van Horn limited to about 15 minutes per game because of a foot injury, coach Terry Porter has used Kukoc more often at the small-forward position. The Bucks have been able to take advantage of some size mismatches, using the taller Kukoc to post up smaller defenders.
Kukoc scored a key basket late in the victory over Minnesota when he got the ball in post-up position against Timberwolves guard Sam Cassell.
"The other night in Toronto, we tried to use him as much as possible, because he had the advantage over Jalen (Rose), height-wise," Porter said. "We were just solid, and we tried to play out of his hands."
If Kukoc does get double-teamed in the post, he has the knack for finding the open man. And he is usually lethal when he has the ball in the open floor, with options on his right and his left.
"I am getting more assists from the three spot," Kukoc said. "I can see the floor better, I guess, and I have the ball more often."
Kukoc had four assists during the Bucks' 22-0 knockout run against Boston in the second quarter on Tuesday, as Milwaukee went on to an easy victory. Then he posted his best all-around game of the season with 10 points, eight assists and six rebounds Wednesday night in the Bucks' 110-107 victory at Toronto.
With Kukoc on the floor, Pachulia is taking advantage of some chances in the paint, and point guard Mike James is getting better looks from the perimeter.
James sank eight of 13 three-pointers against Boston, and he hit six of 10 overall (2 for 4 from three-point range) against Toronto.
"When he's in there with that Toni lineup, it gives him a chance to get other shots," Porter said of James. "He doesn't worry so much about trying to create his own, and he gets quality looks when he's in there."
Kukoc termed his hip about 75% healed but said he was not sure whether it would improve this season.
"It's not that I'm going to go out and play 35 minutes every night," he said. "But 20, 25 or 28 minutes, I think I can handle that.
"I actually feel pretty good right now, knock on wood. If it stays like this, everybody will be happy."
With less than two weeks left until the Feb. 24 league trading deadline, rumors are everywhere.
A TNT report on Thursday said the Bucks and 76ers were considering a deal that would bring forward Glenn Robinson back to Milwaukee and send Van Horn to Philadelphia, where he played during the 2002-'03 season.
Van Horn is the Bucks' highest-paid player and is under contract through the 2005-'06 season, when he will make $15.7 million. The 32-year-old Robinson, who has not played for Philadelphia this year, is owed $12 million this season but is not under contract for next season.
The Bucks might be tempted to clear some room under the salary cap so they can make additional moves in the off-season or sign guard Michael Redd to a long-term deal.
Redd, who will be a free agent at the end of the current season, also has been the subject of intense trade speculation.
Harris said he expected to have numerous conversations with other NBA general managers in the next two weeks, but he stressed that he will not respond publicly to specific trade talk.
"It's that time of year, and there will be a lot of conversations throughout the whole league, no doubt about it," Harris said. "But I cannot comment on trade rumors."
From the Feb. 12, 2005, editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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