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(E) Toni has been an incredible winner wherever he's been - NYT
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  04/28/2003 | Sports | Unrated
(E) Toni has been an incredible winner wherever he's been - NYT

 

Kukoc Again Making Subtle Contributions

New York Times
April 25, 2003

Kukoc Again Making Subtle Contributions

By STEVE POPPER

ILWAUKEE, April 24 - The rings were almost a forgotten part of Toni Kukoc's past as he toiled in Atlanta for part of two seasons. Playing for a National Basketball Association also-ran, Kukoc was reduced to a bit player on a bad team.

He never was the main man in Chicago when he won three championship rings playing alongside Michael Jordan, despite the expectations and acclaim that accompanied him from Croatia to the United States. But he did little things that helped make the Bulls champions, things that were lost in the struggles of a 33-49 Hawks team last season.

While the Milwaukee Bucks may not elicit memories of the Bulls' championship teams, Kukoc, 34, is back in the postseason again. Through the first two games against the Nets, Kukoc, who was traded from Atlanta to Milwaukee last season, is doing little things that brought the Bucks out of New Jersey with the four-of-seven-game opening-round series tied at 1-1.

"Toni's not a spectacular player," Milwaukee Coach George Karl said. "He's just a basketball player. Statistically, he doesn't care about numbers. He's never going to get great rebounds. He's always going to have steals. He's always going to have assists. He can beat you inside. He can beat you outside. He can beat you with the pass. He's not a great defensive individual player, but he makes plays. He makes defensive plays. He made three huge defensive plays in the fourth quarter'' of the Bucks' 88-85 victory in Game 2.

Karl said that Kukoc often goes unnoticed because of his modest statistics. "It seems like players get rewarded for individual stats,'' Karl said. "As coaches, we're searching for guys that win games. Toni has been an incredible winner wherever he's been, including Europe."

In Game 2, the 6-foot-11 Kukoc had 11 points, 6 steals, 6 assists and 5 rebounds in 33 minutes. For a player hardly known for his defense, the 6 steals jumped off the statistics sheet.

"I actually saw it when he first came back from his injury, that he helped us win as many games with his defense as he did offensively," Karl said. "It's his ability to be alert and active, jump around; his length bothers people. He just makes plays. He makes defensive plays because he's confident. I think his experience of being there gives him a little more confidence to slash the ball, go after the ball, where a younger kid might be afraid of fouling."

Kukoc made some of his most important plays in Game 2 down the stretch. After the Bucks moved ahead at 82-81 on Tim Thomas's 3-pointer, Kukoc stripped the ball from Nets guard Lucious Harris at midcourt and flipped it ahead to Sam Cassell for a layup. When the Nets closed the gap to a point again, Kukoc spun past Richard Jefferson and dropped in a finger roll, then stripped the ball from Jason Kidd on the other end.

"I was just trying to play solid on both ends," said Kukoc, who won three European championships before joining the Bulls in 1993. "I was able to get my hands on a couple of balls and get a couple of steals, play down low and create the mismatches so we can get some good open shots."

Kukoc missed 18 games this season with torn ligaments in his hand, and the Bucks went 6-12 over that span. When he returned, the Bucks turned their fortunes around.

"We were struggling and Toni came back from an injury and we won 16 out of 20 games," Karl said. "That probably saved our season."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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