Before the holiday break, the Milwaukee Bucks seemed to be improving.
The Bucks can prove they still are as they try to knock off the Indiana Pacers, owners of the best record in the Eastern Conference.
Milwaukee reached .500 for the first time since Dec. 2 with an 83-78 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday night.
Joe Smith had 18 points, including a three-point play with 59 seconds left, and a season-high 17 rebounds for the Bucks, who have won two straight and five of seven.
“Joe was great,” Milwaukee coach Terry Porter said. “He was active. He really kept things alive for us and did a great job of battling in there and getting rebounds.”
Michael Redd added 18 points and the Bucks held Detroit to a season-low 36 percent.
Milwaukee, winners in three of the last four, is seeking its fifth straight home win.
The schedule doesn’t get any easier for the Bucks, who play four of their next six on the road. That stretch includes a visit to San Antonio and a home-and-home series with Dallas.
“I’m pleased with our record,” Milwaukee coach Terry Porter said. “We’ve had injuries and you can’t predict those. Who knows what our record would be if we had everybody healthy?”
Indiana, meanwhile, maintains the East’s best record despite winning just seven of 13 games since a 14-2 start.
After a 22-point loss at Minnesota on Saturday, the Pacers regrouped at practice and worked on their deficiencies.
That effort seemed to pay off in Tuesday’s 79-71 win over Houston.
Jermaine O’Neal had 21 points and 14 rebounds for his 15th double-double of the season, Ron Artest added 21 points and Anthony Johnson 13. It was the first road win in four games for the Pacers, 10-5 away from home.
“Credit it to the practice we had yesterday. It showed up on the court,” O’Neal said. “We worked on some things that we were doing badly.”
The Pacers, who have alternated wins and losses in the last seven games, shot better than 40 percent for the first time in four contests and held Houston to 35 percent.
“We played a terrific all-around game and practicing really helped. We did the little things well and it helped us win the game,” Indiana coach Rick Carlisle said.
Kenny Anderson was placed on the injured list with a calf injury and Indiana activated fellow point guard Jamaal Tinsley. Tinsley, who lost the starter’s role to Anderson in training camp, last played on Oct. 31 before a back injury forced him to the injured list.
STANDINGS (through Dec. 24): Pacers - 1st place (tied), Central Division. Bucks - 5th place, 6 1/2 GB, Central Division.
TEAM LEADERS: Pacers - O’Neal, 20.3 ppg and 10.1 rpg; Artest, 4 apg. Bucks - Redd, 21.8 ppg; Smith, 9.5 rpg; Ford, 6.6 apg.
SEASON SERIES: Bucks, 1-0.
LAST MEETING: Oct. 31; Bucks, 93-79. At Indiana, Ford had 11 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists in his NBA debut, Redd scored 21 points and Thomas added 20 as the Bucks shot 54 percent.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Pacers - 10-5 on the road; Bucks - 9-4 at home.