MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee Bucks are marching up the Eastern Conference standings, bolstered by the kind of successful basketball that hasn’t been seen in this town in decades.
The Bucks went 14-4 in March, their best month since going 16-2 in February 1971. These are heady times for a franchise that has finished .500 or better just twice since 2004-05.
An overtime victory on Friday night against Detroit lifted Milwaukee into fifth place in the East and a season-high four games over .500 (40-36). The Bucks blew an 18-point lead in the first quarter, then trailed by 10 with 5 minutes left in the regulation before asserting control again against the Pistons.
“I think it just shows where the team is at mentally and physically. Being down and maybe not playing our best, we still believed we could find a way to win,” coach Jason Kidd.
Better defense has been one of the keys to improvement. The Bucks have been getting key stops in crunch time, a sign of maturation for a young but athletic team. Six of their last eight wins have come by four points or fewer, including three on a recent West Coast swing.
“We’re defending well, we’re moving the ball, and when we can get stops and get out and run, that’s when we’re at our best,” guard Matthew Dellavedova said.
It’s especially true when forward Giannis Antetokounmpo has the ball in his hands, heading up the court on the break at full speed. A first-time All-Star this year, the 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo has reached a point in his still-young career in which he’s drawing more foul calls and getting to the line.
Only 22, Antetokounmpo is an NBA graybeard compared with 7-foot-1 center Thon Maker, a rookie whose lanky build and athletic promise often draws comparisons to Antetokounmpo’s rookie days in 2013-14.
Maker had a breakout night against Detroit, scoring a career-high 23 points and getting minutes late in a competitive game, a rare occurrence for a young player still learning the game. But the 20-year-old seems to be maturing at just the right time, with the Bucks making a postseason push.
“The most important thing is he’s listening and he’s learning,” Antetokounmpo said. “I told him, “To play this game, (can’t) hesitate . . . If you hesitate, I’m going to punch you, so shoot the ball whenever you get it.”
Malcolm Brogdon (10.3 points) is a contender for the NBA Rookie of the Year Award for his heady play at point guard. The Bucks beat Detroit despite not having Brogdon, who missed the game because of a sore back.
Injuries have affected the roster all season in Milwaukee, which didn’t have Khris Middleton for the first 50 games this season as he recovered from a torn left hamstring. Middleton returned on Feb. 8 during a 106-88 home loss to the Miami Heat, the same game in which the Bucks lost Jabari Parker for the season to a left knee injury. The Bucks dropped to seven games under .500 with that loss.
A few weeks later, Parker’s replacement, Michael Beasley, went down with a left knee injury.
But the Bucks have turned things around. The return of the 6-foot-8 Middleton has helped immensely, giving the team a scorer who could help space the floor as well as a versatile defender.
“Having someone with . . . experience and smarts out there makes a big difference there on both ends,” Dellavedova said. “It’s easier to play with him.”