ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — Brandon Jennings was joking around at the Wisconsin Sports Awards Thursday night when he made a remark that has spread like wildfire on the Internet and even into the Miami Heat locker room.
Jennings told the crowd, and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers earlier in the evening, that his Milwaukee Bucks were going to win their first-round NBA playoff series in six games. The young point guard was just having fun, but he was fed up with the pundits leaving his team for dead against the defending champs.
“Of course it’s always going to be taken to the next level,” Jennings said. “But at the end of the day, we are getting bashed on ESPN and getting bashed on TNT anyway, so now I say we are going to win in six and now it’s a problem.”
Of course, the Bucks know the odds. They know how good Miami is. But are they expected to say they have no chance? That’s the job of the media, but the players are finding motivation in the fact most don’t think the Bucks can even make the series – which starts Sunday in Miami — competitive.
“I think it fueled our fire a little bit, too,” Jennings said. “Everybody keeps saying what I said fueled the Miami Heat’s fire, but I think it fueled our fire, too, that everybody is already counting us out. I know guys are excited and guys are anxious. That’s just a good sign that they are positive and motivated right now.
“It’s not going to be easy. They aren’t the defending champs for nothing. We are going to have a find a way to where we’re just dialed in and things are just going for us. We are going to have to find a rhythm and play with the rhythm.”
Jennings’ comments reached top-seeded Miami on Friday, and the Heat brushed them off as nothing.
“This series will be decided between those four lines,” coach Erik Spoelstra told ESPN.com.”And you can’t hide from that.”
Spoelstra also told ESPN.com that Jennings’ comments weren’t even worth using as bulletin-board material, and star guard Dwyane Wade agreed, while taking a shot at the Bucks.
“We’ve got enough motivation,” Wade told the website. “We have a big goal in mind. We were put together to win a championship, not to just make the playoffs.”
Bucks guard Monta Ellis has been through this before. In 2007, Ellis’ Golden State team finished the season 42-40 and was a massive underdog against the top-seeded and defending Western Conference champion Dallas Mavericks.
The Warriors got hot and rode Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson and Jason Richardson to become the first eight seed to beat a one seed in a seven-game series. Ellis doesn’t see a comparison between this Bucks team and the Golden State team that pulled off the upset, mostly because of how the two teams entered the playoffs.
“We were going into the playoffs with a lot of confidence and a lot of momentum,” Ellis said of 2007. “In the season series, we always had Dallas’ number, so we knew what it took to beat them. We went in and stole the first game, and once we did that all bets were off.
“We’re going into the playoffs with Miami, and we can knock the records to 0-0. As long as we can limit our mistakes and capitalize on theirs, I think it is going to be a good series.”
Bucks sixth man Mike Dunleavy can offer a different perspective. Dunleavy was on that Golden State team at the beginning of the season but was traded to Indiana during the year. He’s made the playoffs only once in his career, and the 2010-11 Indiana Pacers are a much better comparison to the Bucks of this season.
The Pacers changed coaches in the middle of the season – as Milwaukee did this year. Indiana went into the playoffs with a 37-45 record, the only playoff team with a worse record than Milwaukee’s 38-44 in recent NBA history. Indiana won one game against top-seeded Chicago.
“I think whoever wins the series is going to win the whole thing,” Dunleavy joked. “I feel pretty good about that. Obviously, it’s a monumental challenge for us. It’s a team that’s lost four games in the last 40 or 50 and we have to manage to do it in seven.
“I think our best approach would be to try to get one game. If we get one game, try to get another game. It will be a lot easier to beat these guys once than four times. If we can break it down like that, it will give ourselves a better chance.”
The Bucks have played the Heat just about as well as anybody since LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Wade in South Beach in 2010. This season, Milwaukee beat Miami by 19 points at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in December and lost in overtime on the road in November.
If playing at their best, the Bucks — who often improve against top-level teams — can be competitive in the series, but that’s the thing: Milwaukee hasn’t been playing its best in months. The Bucks are maddeningly inconsistent, and there’s no room for fluctuation against the 66-16 Heat.
“When I think the team is playing at its highest level is when everyone’s emotion is involved and everyone’s mind is pointed in the right direction, which is winning the game,” Bucks center Larry Sanders said. “Everything individual goes out of the window. When we gel like that, I think that’s when we play our best. Those games we play like that, we usually have success.”
One of Bucks coach Jim Boylan’s goals in the series is to limit the offensive production of the big three, as best as any team can. James, Wade and Bosh average 64.6 points per game but averaged 72.6 points per game in the three games they all played in against the Bucks this season. Milwaukee would like to limit the trio closer to their averages for the season.
But that’s easier said than done, especially against James.
“I look at this as a big challenge for us, just going into next year,” Jennings said. “Especially for the city. We will be on the biggest stage, so it will be good for the city, it will be good for us just to get that exposure. Just to see where we really are.
“With the playoffs, you just never know what is going to happen. Nobody knows. Just keep it close as possible. Just keep it close and we’ll see what happens.”