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No doubting Bucks' Thomas in the playoffs

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- So his numbers have not been Big Dog caliber. Still, Tim Thomas did succeed in replacing Glenn Robinson in one manner this season.

As the primary tenant of George Karl's doghouse.

"It's been," Thomas said, "a long season."

It was Thomas, not Toni Kukoc -- acquired from the Hawks along with Leon Smith and a 2003 first-round pick for Robinson -- who was supposed to make up most of Robinson's nightly 21 points and six rebounds, numbers Robinson averaged for eight seasons in Milwaukee.

After emerging as one of the league's best sixth men his first three years with the Bucks, Thomas finally had the opportunity to prove his worth after being given max dollars -- $67 million over six years -- after his breakout 2000 season in which he averaged 11.8 points and 4.2 rebounds as a reserve and earned runner-up Sixth Man of the Year honors.

Thomas' first season as a starter was fairly uneventful until Karl moved him from small forward to power forward to make room for Desmond Mason, who was brought over from Seattle with Gary Payton at the trade deadline in February. Toward the end of his most inconsistent month of the season, Thomas refused to re-enter a game in Denver on March 26 to protest the way Karl had been using him.

The team fined Thomas $20,000, and Karl kept Thomas on the bench, going as far as starting rookie Marcus Haislip instead of Thomas. Haislip even got the start in the Bucks' playoff opener against the Nets.

"You're going to have your ups and you're going to have your downs," said Thomas, who got the start in Milwaukee's regular-season finale but only because of an injury to Sam Cassell. "The biggest thing to do is just stay focused and keep working. That's what I've been doing each and every day. I come in and continue to work on my game and try to get better each and every game."

After Saturday's 109-96 loss to the Nets, Karl had no choice but to put Thomas back into the lineup. Thomas followed his 25-point outing in Game 1 with 18 points on 7-of-16 shooting in Tuesday's 88-85 win, hitting the game's biggest shot -- a 3-pointer with 3:01 left -- that gave Milwaukee the lead at 82-81.

Despite Thomas' two crucial misses at the free-throw line with 10.4 seconds -- and a dreadful 9-for-20 effort as a team -- the Bucks escaped the Meadowlands with a series split.

"In Game 1, we got off to a lousy offensive start," Karl explained. "I started Tim Thomas because we execute a little better and I think he spaces the court for Gary Payton a little better. We got off to a good offensive start."

Credit the Bucks' small-ball strategy for that. The 6-foot-10 Thomas and 6-11 Kukoc benefited from posting up smaller defenders, Thomas scoring six first-quarter points on turnaround jumpers.

"In the first game, we were running plays trying to see if they were going to double it with mismatches. They never did. We just missed shots," said Thomas, who averaged career bests of 13.3 points and 4.8 rebounds this season. "We came back and wanted to see if they were going to double it again. They didn't, but we made shots. That was the difference."

Karl classified his relationship with Thomas as "professional." Thomas, likewise, has been all business since the start of the playoffs, which has given him renewed focus. Back-to-back solid games has given him some much-needed confidence.

"It's the time of the year where you go out and play hard," Thomas said. "You get your recognition, your props, in the postseason."

Joe Lago is the NBA editor for ESPN.com.