MILWAUKEE (AP) — As far as the Milwaukee Bucks can tell, it may have started with a one-liner from an ESPN anchor.
Today, it’s a rallying cry seen on fan signs at the Bradley Center and an electronic billboard by the highway near downtown Milwaukee. It’s even a hashtag on Twitter.
Fear the Deer.
“I love the little ‘Fear the Deer’ thing,” rookie guard Brandon Jennings said. “It’s pretty awesome.”
It has been quite a while since the Bucks have struck anything approaching fear in their opponents. After making the playoffs in 2005-06, they didn’t win more than 34 games in any of the next three seasons.
But with Sunday’s victory over Indiana, Milwaukee now has won six straight games and 12 of its last 13 — including a recent defeat of a Cleveland team playing without LeBron James, followed by legitimate wins over Boston and Utah.
At 36-29, the Bucks have already won two more games than they did last season. If the NBA playoffs started today, they’d be the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference.
What in the name of Oscar Robertson is going on here?
“Everybody’s confidence is real high right now,” Jennings said. “I know a lot of people doubted us at the beginning of the season, had us almost (finishing) last. But we’re here, too. We’re fighting for a spot in the playoffs, too. So don’t forget about us.”
Jennings has been the Bucks’ flashiest addition this year — “a franchise changer,” as Pacers coach Jim O’Brien said.
The rookie was seen as a risk when Bucks general manager John Hammond made him the No. 10 overall pick in the draft. After a standout high school career, he went to Italy instead of playing in college. And he didn’t play very much when he got there.
Could he shoot? Was he mature enough?
Then he scored 55 points in a Nov. 14 game against Golden State, making him an instant national phenomenon. And, as Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, perhaps creating an incorrect perception about him.
“Jennings doesn’t play like that 50-point game,” Rivers said. “He’s a point guard. He’s running the team extremely well with unbelievable composure. But I think people who don’t see the Bucks play think he’s a scoring point guard that’s trying to shoot. He’s the exact opposite, in my opinion, of that. And that’s what’s been so impressive.”
For all the hype surrounding Jennings, the main reason behind Milwaukee’s improvement might be the evolution of center Andrew Bogut, who finally seems healthy and has progressed on both ends of the court.
On Monday, the NBA named Bogut the Eastern Conference’s player of the week.
“They’ve got the big guy back there that gives you a security blanket back there,” Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said. “If you get beat, he’s got the ability to block shots, and teams and players know that, so that takes away a little bit of what you like to do.”
Then there’s the addition of John Salmons, Hammond’s trade deadline acquisition from Chicago. His scoring has helped make up for the absence of Michael Redd, whose season has been ended by a severe knee injury for the second year in a row.
“That’s what we were missing — a scorer,” Jennings said. “When Mike Redd went down, we were looking for somebody to take over, and John Salmons, he’s our guy now.”
Bucks coach Scott Skiles also points to better decision-making by his guards, resulting in a more fluid transition game and better ball movement.
“If we get bogged down in a halfcourt game, that’s not really our style right now,” Skiles said. “We’ve got a couple of guys that can create their shots, but we don’t have that just one bailout guy you can just give the ball to with six left on the clock and he can go get you a basket.”
Skiles is praising his team’s preparation and effort on defense. And that’s significant, given Skiles’ high standards for effort and previous Bucks teams’ laughable attitude toward defending.
As for increased expectations, Skiles says the Bucks must be mature enough to ignore them.
“Hopefully, they understand that those are the same people who picked us to be last in the East that are now saying, ‘Hey, they’re pretty good,'” Skiles said. “If you factor that in, you probably shouldn’t have gotten caught up in it either way.”
Jennings said recent wins over marquee teams showed that the Bucks are playing hard and with confidence. But like the rest of the team, he’s guarding against complacency.
“Everybody’s still fighting for a playoff spot, and we’ve got to keep going,” Jennings said. “Can’t get comfortable now.”
Despite their improbable rise in the standings, Bogut says the Bucks are staying grounded.
“We still have a long way to go as a franchise,” Bogut said. “We haven’t achieved anything yet.”