The Milwaukee Bucks just improved their position in the Eastern Conference standings. They can partly thank the Minnesota Timberwolves for that.
Milwaukee continues its push for its first playoff berth in three seasons on Wednesday night when the visiting Timberwolves go for their first set of back-to-back wins since December.
With nine games left and a six-game edge over ninth-place Philadelphia, Milwaukee (36-37) would need a massive collapse down the stretch to miss the postseason. The Bucks haven't been playing their best - losing five of six before Monday's 131-102 victory over league-worst Charlotte - but their magic number for clinching a playoff berth is down to three.
"I don't really look at the standings, the seeds and all that,'' said center Larry Sanders, who had a career-best 24 points and 13 rebounds. "Keep playing well, and we'll be in the playoffs.''
The Bucks, though, would probably be best served by avoiding No. 1 seed Miami in the opening round. Milwaukee closed within 1 1/2 games of Boston for the seventh seed on Monday when the Timberwolves (27-46) defeated the Celtics 110-100.
Minnesota won't make the playoffs for a ninth consecutive season, but the team was competitive on its just-completed 2-2 homestand, winning 120-117 over the Los Angeles Lakers last Wednesday and falling 101-93 to Oklahoma City on Friday.
"We're moving the ball better - I think we have a better understanding of what we want to do, especially when Pek (center Nikola Pekovic) is out there," said coach Rick Adelman, whose team last won two in a row during a season-best four-game run from Dec. 7-15. "We know he's going to draw attention going in."
Pekovic, who's having a career year with 16.1 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, returned from a one-game injury absence (sprained left ankle) against Boston and finishing with 29 points and five boards. He scored 14 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in a 95-85 home win over the Bucks on Nov. 30, helping the Timberwolves avoid a third consecutive loss in this series.
If Minnesota is going to end a three-game skid in Milwaukee, Pekovic and the Timberwolves' frontcourt will likely have to slow down Sanders. The third-year center is enjoying the best stretch of his career, averaging 14.1 points and 11.7 rebounds in the last 12 games.
"He is rolling to the basket more,'' Monta Ellis said Monday after the Bucks' highest-scoring game in four seasons. "He is setting a screen and getting off of it. He is just taking his opportunity.''
Sanders did just that in the last matchup with Minnesota, finishing with 10 points, 12 rebounds and matching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's franchise record with 10 blocks for his only career triple-double.
Milwaukee has won seven of eight at home in this series after losing the previous eight.