The Milwaukee Bucks have been one of the NBA’s hottest teams since late January, winning 14 of 18 to become a factor in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
As impressive as they’ve looked, their competition has been anything but.
A visit from LeBron James(notes) and the league-best Cavaliers on Saturday night will provide an excellent opportunity for a signature win, but the Bucks will have to find a way to snap a six-game slide against Cleveland.
The Cavaliers (49-14) have won six straight and 19 of 22 to build a six-game lead on Orlando atop the East and a three-game cushion on the Los Angeles Lakers for the league’s best record. They rallied from a 21-point first-half deficit to beat Detroit 99-92 on Friday behind 40 points and 13 rebounds from James.
“I do whatever’s possible for my team to win ball games,” said James, who has had two of his eight career 50-point games in Milwaukee. “If they need me to score, pass, rebound, whatever it takes. I just try to give it to this franchise every time I take the floor.”
Cleveland and Orlando are two of three teams with 14 wins since Jan. 27, and Milwaukee (32-29) is the surprising third name on the list. The Bucks were three games out of the East’s ninth playoff spot as of Jan. 26, but they have climbed to sixth by going 14-4 since.
“We’re not just trying to make the playoffs, we’re trying to move up in the standings,” said forward John Salmons(notes), who’s averaged 20.0 points and helped Milwaukee to an 8-1 record since being acquired from Chicago. “If we all stay together, continue to grow, we can only get better and try to make a push.”
Despite the remarkable run, Milwaukee hasn’t exactly been beating up on top competition. Thirteen of the 14 wins have come against the teams currently occupying the eighth through 15th spots in the East, including a 102-74 rout of Washington on Friday that capped a sweep of a home-and-home series against the Wizards.
Salmons’ scoring has taken some of the offensive pressure off leading scorer Andrew Bogut(notes) while masking the continued struggles of Brandon Jennings(notes). The rookie point guard, shooting 31.0 percent during the 14-4 stretch, said after Milwaukee’s win Wednesday that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to keep shooting.
He was 2 of 7 Friday but had nine assists - his most since Jan. 23.
“That’s what we need from him,” Bogut said. “He knows we don’t need him to score. People get on him because he’s not making shots, but he’s running this ballclub as well as anyone has. He’s moving the ball, and his defensive pressure has been great.”
Jennings averaged 21.0 points in two December meetings with the Cavaliers - making 14 of 43 shots - as Milwaukee came up short each time. Delonte West(notes) had 21 points in a 101-86 win at the Bradley Center on Dec. 6, then James had 26 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in an 85-82 victory in Cleveland on Dec. 18, the Cavaliers’ sixth straight win in the series.
Anderson Varejao(notes), though, is proving to be quite a load inside. Splitting time with J.J. Hickson(notes) at center since O’Neal’s injury, Varejao has averaged 13.5 points and 8.5 rebounds during the Cavaliers’ latest winning streak.