It’s all happened so fast for Larry Sanders, and it’s no wonder that he’s still trying to wrap his mind around it.
After two years of struggling to stay on the court and wondering if he belonged in the NBA at all, Sanders finds himself at the center of a campaign by the Milwaukee Bucks to get him one of two league awards. And more importantly, the big man in the Milwaukee middle might represent the eighth-seeded Bucks’ only chance to give the top-seeded Miami Heat any kind of a test in the first round of the playoffs.
“I didn’t expect that at all,” Sanders said in a phone interview. “It’s been a good year for all of us.”
The Bucks recently rolled out an advertising campaign, sending a set of children’s blocks — get it? — to voters in the media to stump for their shot-block artist. The blocks spell out “Larry Sanders” and can be flipped to read “Defensive POY” and “Most Improved.”
Sanders averaged only 12.4 minutes per game last season, unable to adapt to the way the game is officiated in the NBA. He looked lost for long stretches of his first two years in the league as he tried to figure out what he could get away with and adjust to what his opponents tried to do to him.
This year, Sanders is averaging 27.3 minutes a game, is second in the NBA in blocked shots and has become the indispensable last line of defense for the Bucks, who are going to the playoffs for the first time since 2010. He’s had 26 double-doubles this season after recording just one in each of his first two years in the league and has reduced his foul rate by 2.5 fouls per 36 minutes.
“There was a frustration, discouragement,” Sanders said. “I was questioning whether I belonged in the league, can I play at this level. I built my confidence around my faith. I kept that in my mind and it helped me stay positive, just to keep working. I just would not let discouragement set in.”
This season, Sanders tied Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s franchise record with 10 blocks in his triple-double game against Minnesota and also has blocked more shots than any Bucks player since Elmore Smith 1975.
“That’s amazing,” Sanders said. “It’s something that I could never really fathom, being in a position for some of these things to happen this year. It’s amazing. I didn’t think those goals were attainable.”
And if the Heat have one weakness, it’s in the frontcourt, where they often struggle to rebound against bigger competition. The Heat rank 26th in offensive rebound percentage and are 15th in defensive rebounds.
That’s where Sanders comes in. His ability to control the boards and make LeBron James and Dwyane Wade think twice about driving to the basket represent Milwaukee’s only hope.
“If you look at Miami, an area that you can get some work done against them is on the offensive glass,” Bucks coach Jim Boylan said. “So, if Larry is active around the glass, he’s going to get some second-chance opportunities, some tip-ins, things like that. When you’re playing against a team of that caliber, getting those opportunities is really, really big. So he could have a big effect on the games.”
Foul trouble hasn’t been as much of an issue for Sanders this season, but he has still struggled to stay on the court at times.
Jovial and kind-hearted off the court, Sanders has had difficulty containing his emotions. He has been ejected five times this season and was fined $95,000 over a 10-day stretch in March. The outbursts drew troubling comparisons to Rasheed Wallace.
“There are things I can and can’t change,” Sanders said. “When I find myself getting frustrated with a call or refs, I’m just dwelling on things I have no control over. In the heat of battle emotions can spew all over the place. I’m really working on it and I’m becoming a lot better, I feel.”
Sanders has been incident-free for the past couple of weeks, and the Bucks simply can’t afford to see him lose his cool in the playoffs.
“We’ve talked a lot about it,” Boylan said. “He’s done better. Coming into the playoffs, the intensity level gets turned up. You’re playing the same team, so feelings from one game can spill into another. So you really have to be very under control. So it’s going to be a good test for Larry.
He knows what he needs to do. He’s trying and is doing a better job with it.”
Sanders, who has been dealing with a sore back for the past week, is focused solely on helping his team against the Heat. But he did say that he has allowed himself to consider the possibility of winning one of those two awards as the season has drawn to a close. If he had his pick, he’d take the defensive player.
“I really hang my hat on defense,” Sanders said. “I like playing defense. I have a passion for it. I want to be known for playing defense.”
He hopes his success on that end of the floor inspires others to commit to defense. That philosophy, however, is still a work in progress for Sanders’ 2-year-old son.
“He’s a dunker,” Sanders said, laughing. “His favorite player is Monta Ellis. He loves the 360 layups. He’s not ready to commit to the defensive end. He wants to score right now.