- Jerry Bembry
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MILWAUKEE -- He's answering questions from the crowd that's gathered around his locker stall after the Bucks' overtime win over the Nets, but Toni Kukoc isn't all there.
One eye is focused on the reporters in front of him. The other is checking out the 76ers-Hornets playoff game on the television that's in the middle of the room. "I'm so into the playoffs," Kukoc said, getting another glimpse at the action on TV. "I can't wait to go home and watch the rest of the games."
There's good reason why Kukoc spends these days acting overly overjoyed. The last two years have seen him finish his seasons in Atlanta, where postseason berths are about as scarce as fans that actually attend games at Philips Arena. Kukoc made his biggest impact of the playoffs so far on Saturday, scoring a team-high 23 points off the bench -- including eight in overtime when he made two 3-pointers -- as the Bucks beat the Nets 119-114 to even the best-of-seven, opening-round series at two games each.
Ask Gary Payton about Kukoc, and he'll tell you that it's no coincidence the two games the Bucks have won are the two games Kukoc has played well. "He knows how to win games in the playoffs and it's big for us when Toni scores and is active," Payton said of Kukoc, who also had 11 points, six assists and six steals in Milwaukee's Game 2 victory. "When he's in a rhythm passing and shooting the ball, I don't think there's anyone who can stop him."
Nets forward Kenyon Martin tried to stop Kukoc in overtime and failed, despite putting up a good effort. It was Martin who ran out at Kukoc when he hit his first 3-pointer of overtime, giving the Bucks a 105-102 lead with 3:58 left. With 1:57 remaining and the Bucks up by one, Kukoc launched from nearly the exact same spot with Martin running at him again. When the ball fell through for a 112-108 lead, Martin was left shaking his head as he retreated down court.
"When Toni plays well," Bucks coach George Karl said, "it gives us a lot of confidence."
Karl can give many thanks for Kukoc and fellow sub Michael Redd (nine points, including a huge 3-pointer with 1:16 left in overtime) for saving his hide. The Bucks had a 15-point lead with 7:41 left in the fourth quarter and appeared ready to cruise to a win.
But Milwaukee's offense stalled and, with Jason Kidd directing the offense, the Nets were able to tie the game twice in the last two minutes. In fact, the Nets would have won the game had they not missed 10 fourth-quarter free throws. The Nets missed eight of 13 free throws in the last 3:50.
"We make free throws, we win the game -- that's the bottom line," Nets coach Byron Scott said. "We came here talking about winning both games so, in a sense, we're disappointed. But the main objective was to get homecourt advantage back, and we did that."
The Nets have homecourt back, but they might find themselves in trouble if Kukoc's confidence soars. But Kukoc's confidence will only soar if he can only maintain his focus.
"Sometimes he lets little things bother him and then he makes crazy passes and takes crazy shots," Payton said. "He gets a little (crazy), but I calm him down. After Game 3, I told him that we needed more from him, and he came through."
And Kukoc is happy that he's getting another opportunity in a playoff atmosphere. His last postseason experience prior to this season was in 2000 with the Sixers. The next season, Kukoc was on the Sixers team that began the season with the best record in basketball. "I had been in the playoffs every year and I thought it was going to continue," Kukoc said. "But then, a month and a half before the end of the season they trade me to Atlanta."
The Sixers went on to the NBA Finals that season, and Kukoc spent what had been the most exciting part of the season during his career playing lots of golf. "I'd play golf the last two seasons," Kukoc said. "Then I'd rush home to watch the games."
Now before Kukoc rushes home to watch playoff games, he has an opportunity to star in them. "All I can say," Kukoc offered, "is that it's good to be back."
Jerry Bembry is general editor (NBA) for ESPN The Magazine. You can reach him via e-mail at Jerry.Bembry@ESPN3.com.
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