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Original Issue

Run To The Playoffs Can the remade Bucks hold on to a berth and end George Karl's agony?

For the last couple of years, coach George Karl has tried to make
his Milwaukee Bucks into a tougher, nastier bunch. Last month he
got an injection of just what he wanted when the team acquired
Gary Payton, the pit bull of a point guard whom Karl had once
coached in Seattle. The move would provide, Karl predicted, "the
defense we've been missing." ¶ Sure enough, there was Payton last
Friday night in New Orleans, still looking a little peculiar in a
Milwaukee uniform but playing his Glove-style D. He staked out
passing lanes, bodied up the Hornets' Baron Davis and swiped at
any other opponent who came near him. Called for a reach-in foul,
he only clamped down harder, sneering and shouting to his teammates,
"A-iigght, let's f-----' go!" It was inspirational. It was
intimidating. It was totally ineffective.

Against a somnambulant Bucks frontcourt, the Hornets got dunk
after dunk and scored 70 first-half points en route to a 113-98
victory. The 34-year-old Payton resembled the little guy at the
bar who starts a fight only to find that his larger, meatier
buddies have slipped out the back door. As New Orleans forward
Jamal Mashburn put it, "Gary's an excellent defensive player, but
he can't go down and block shots in the paint. It has to be a
team effort."

And that's the rub for Milwaukee as it tries to hold on to the
Eastern Conference's last playoff spot (chart). Since getting
Payton from the SuperSonics--along with 6'5" Desmond Mason in
exchange for guards Ray Allen, Kevin Ollie and Ronald Murray and
a draft pick--the Bucks have been not so much a team as a
collection of talent. Milwaukee's two best players are point
guards (Payton and Sam Cassell), and its next-best ones tend to
prefer the perimeter (swingmen Mason and Michael Redd, forwards
Tim Thomas and Toni Kukoc). At week's end the undersized Bucks
had given up more points per game since the Payton trade (102.8)
than they had before it (98.3), forcing them to ratchet up their
offense even more. That style is exactly what Karl had detested
so much in the team's pre-Payton incarnation, which he called
"soft" and derided for its shoot-first, defend-rarely mentality.

For Karl, missing the playoffs this season would be, as he puts
it, "very, very disappointing--if not devastating." He's not
exaggerating. Imagine all the worst moments of your professional
career happening in a 13-month span. Add an element of
international disgrace, put it all in the morning newspaper, and
you'd begin to approximate what the 51-year-old Karl has gone
through. He has overseen the worst nosedive in NBA regular-season
history (in a 26-game stretch last winter, Milwaukee went from
Central Division leader to lottery team), made inflammatory
remarks about the ease with which black former players seem to
get NBA coaching jobs (which were published in Esquire), failed
to guide the U.S. team to a medal at a major competition (the
unprecedented flop at last summer's world championships, in which
the U.S. lost to Argentina, Yugoslavia and Spain) and drastically
revamped a Bucks team only a year removed from the conference
finals by rubber-stamping the departure of two of its three best
players (first Glenn Robinson, traded to the Atlanta Hawks for
Kukoc and a draft choice, and then Allen).

Now Karl, whose $7 million salary is the highest among coaches in
pro sports, has less than a month to transform the new-look Bucks
into not only a playoff team but also a squad that Payton, who
will be a free agent this summer, might want to play for next
year. So far it's safe to say that GP hasn't been pricing Brewers
season tickets. His remark in late February that he would stay if
Milwaukee won the championship sounded not unlike hinging a
dinner invitation to a friend on the condition that you win the
lottery tomorrow. Still, that comment was promising compared with
his first reaction to the deal: Payton told a Seattle reporter,
"It's not a death sentence. It's only two months." He later added
that his family, accustomed to living on the West Coast, was his
priority. Asked last Saturday if he was any more positive about
staying in Milwaukee, Payton shook his head. "I'm still the
same," he said. "I'm just trying to get us in the playoffs right
now. When the season ends, I'll think about that some more."

It doesn't help the Bucks' chances in the Payton Auction that
owner Herb Kohl is trying to sell the team and is unlikely to
take on a big salary, especially one that will force him to pay
the luxury tax. Still, Karl is optimistic. "I think Gary's going
to make a basketball and a financial decision, and I think we're
in the race for both of them," he says. "Hell, if San Antonio or
some other team that can win a championship comes and blows us
out of the water, I understand. But we have a lottery pick [this
June], and we have some good young players. I think he likes
Desmond." Karl pauses. "I honestly think he realizes there's a
good opportunity here."

If Payton leaves, and most observers believe he will--"I don't
see why he'd stay," says one Western Conference scout--Milwaukee
must stomach the fact that it essentially traded Allen, a
27-year-old All-Star and 2004 Olympian, for Mason, a nice player
but not one to rebuild a franchise around. This, of course, is
all the more reason for Karl to make the playoffs this year,
while the billboard outside the Bradley Center that reads NOW

Karl thinks there's a real chance the Bucks will catch fire in
April and wind up with the No. 7 seed, passing the Orlando Magic,
who at week's end had a 2 1/2-game cushion on them. "I'm hopeful
about the playoffs," says Karl. "I think with a little luck of
the draw and a matchup with the right team--I'm not going to tell
you which one, but there are a couple I feel pretty good
about--we've got a shot in a seven-game series. It's wide open in
the East."

If this sounds like an awfully cheery view for a team that
through Sunday had gone 7-10 since the Payton trade and had been
lit up by Allan Houston (50 points), Tracy McGrady (48), Stephon
Marbury (41), Antawn Jamison (40) and Malik Rose (a career-high
34), well, there are some encouraging signs. At their best these
Bucks are reminiscent of Karl's Golden State Warriors of the
1980s: fast, aggressive and capable of scoring points in bunches.
Cassell and Payton have fed off each other so far--Cassell's
numbers have jumped in almost every category since the trade--and
both are dangerous post-up options. Even Milwaukee's D, which
after all was the focus of the trade, is showing signs of life.
In a 104-85 win in New Jersey last week, the Bucks' zone schemes
helped force the Nets into 27 turnovers. And last Saturday, only
a night after the first-half meltdown at New Orleans, Milwaukee
held those same Hornets to 40.5% shooting in a 93-85 home win.
"Obviously they have the capability, and they have the pride,"
said New Orleans coach Paul Silas. "It just takes time to add in
the new pieces."

The primary new piece, Payton, not only thinks there is enough
time--"We're starting to get it as a team, and we're capable of
going all the way," he says--but also sees the stretch run as a
chance to rehabilitate Karl's image. "Coaches have bad years,
just like players," says Payton. "He brought me in to try to get
this team to the playoffs. Hopefully I can do that and get it all
off his back."

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GARY DINEEN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES TOGETHER AGAIN Karl (right) hoped his old pal Payton would bringout Milwaukee's finest, but so far that hasn't happened.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH SUNS' SPOT Marbury should save the West's No. 8 seed for Phoenix.