Byline: Jason Wilde Wisconsin State Journal
MILWAUKEE -- While everyone else was talking, Ray Allen was dressing. He'd quietly slipped into his sunshine-yellow T-shirt and black leather trench coat and was ready to head for the door when, somewhat reluctantly, he finally joined the debate.
His coach, George Karl, and the other two-thirds of the Big Three -- Glenn Robinson and Sam Cassell -- had already weighed in with their opinions, classifying the Milwaukee Bucks' 89-82 win over Detroit Sunday afternoon at the Bradley Center as a big victory.
The notion had merit:
* The win was Milwaukee's third in a row after starting the month of February 2-5.
* It prevented the Bucks (32-22) from falling out of first place in the Central Division for the first time since mid-December.
* It came against the Pistons (31-23), who had forged a tie with the Bucks atop the division by winning 12 of their previous 14 games and five in a row.
'No doubt about it, it's a big win for us,' said Cassell, who led all scorers with 27 points. 'We were playing for first place in the Central. Now we've got control of first place -- like we should have.'
That was Allen's point. The last time the teams had met -- a 97-79 Bucks' victory at Detroit on Jan.21 -- the Bucks had improved to a season-high 13 games above .500 and held a seven-game lead on the Pistons. After that, the Pistons went 12-2 while the Bucks went 5-9.
'That's why I'm not jumping for joy thinking, We just beat Detroit!' Or, We've got first place now!' ' said Allen, who had 21 points and helped harass Pistons' scoring leader Jerry Stackhouse (19 points) into an 8-for-27 shooting performance.
'It was a big game in the sense that, everybody who's down there below us, we have to keep kicking them and make sure they stay down there. But we were supposed to win this game. We're a better team than that team. We just lost some terrible games where we weren't playing well.'
With 28 regular-season games remaining, the Bucks' challenge now is to sustain a high level entering the playoffs, which start April20.
'We've got 28 games to go, and because of the closeness of Detroit and some other teams, you're going to have big games,' said Karl, whose team has won three in a row for the first time since an eight-game winning streak from Jan.8 to 21.
'I know you want to just glide through the regular season and never play a big game except against the Lakers or someone else, but the truth of the matter is you learn how to play in the playoffs a little bit from how you play in the regular season. That's where you grow.'
Sunday was a positive step in that direction.
The Bucks trailed 15-8 early, but reeled off 16 of the game's next 20 points to take a 24-19 lead after one quarter and pushed the lead to as many as 15 by early in the third.
But because of some sloppiness with the ball by the Bucks (seven third-quarter turnovers) and a remarkable performance by Detroit's Ben Wallace (10 points, 17 rebounds and 10 blocked shots for his first career triple-double), the Pistons pulled to within 77-74 on a Corliss Williamson 3-pointer with 4 minutes, 56 seconds to play.
But the Bucks responded with some solid defense and by making 10 of 12 free throws in the final 4:11 to seal the win. Milwaukee now trails Atlantic Division-leading New Jersey by 5 1/2 games for the No.1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
'Yeah, we took care of business, but it wasn't like, Whew, won the game, we're the better team.' Because we already knew that,' Allen said.
'At no point during the season have I looked at anybody in the Central Division and said, Who's behind us?' I've never worried about who's behind us, because worrying about what's behind you, you end up being behind. I worry about who's in front of us, who we need to catch.'
Detroit 19 19 25 19 -- 82
Milwaukee 24 23 24 18 -- 89
DETROIT -- Curry 0-2 2-2 2, C. Robinson 4-11 1-2 12, Wallace 5-7 0-2 10, Atkins 7-13 0-0 16, Stackhouse 8-27 3-3 19, Rebraca 0-4 2-2 2, Barry 2-9 1-1 6, Williamson 4-10 4-4 12, Jones 1-2 0-0 3. Totals 31-85 13-16 82.
MILWAUKEE -- Mason 4-10 2-3 10, G. Robinson 6-10 0-0 13, Przybilla 1-5 0-2 2, Allen 7-19 4-5 21, Cassell 9-14 7-8 27, Johnson 2-4 0-0 4, Thomas 3-9 0-0 7, Redd 1-7 1-2 3, Ham 1-3 0-2 2. Totals 34-81 14-22 89.
3-point goals -- D 7-25 (C. Robinson 3-6, Atkins 2-6, Jones 1-2, Barry 1-6, Stackhouse 0-5), M 7-16 (Allen 3-6, Cassell 2-5, G. Robinson 1-1, Thomas 1-3, Redd 0-1). Rebounds -- D 52 (Wallace 17), M 60 (Allen, Johnson 10). Assists -- D 22 (Stackhouse 6), M 18 (Allen 7). Total fouls -- D 22, M 20. Technical foul -- D coach Carlisle. Att. -- 18,717.
Bucks 89, Pistons 82
* Key: Milwaukee scores 10 of its final 12 points on free throws, including two by Sam Cassell with 16.9 seconds left to seal the win.
* Next: 7p.m. Tuesday, vs. Los Angeles Lakers, Bradley Center, TBS.
Pistons' Ben Wallace, left, recorded his first career-triple-double Sunday, but Joel Przybilla and the Bucks won the Central Division showdown.