Bucks’ bench getting healthy for stretch run

Milwaukee led the NBA in bench scoring in the first half of the season. But injuries have tested the depth, although the reserves are rounding back into form with the return of O.J. Mayo (left) and Jared Dudley (far right).

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ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — While much has been made of the impact NBA deadline trade (Brandon Knight and Kendall Marshall for Michael Carter-Williams, Tyler Ennis and Miles Plumlee) has had on the Bucks, the lack of bench production has been an overlooked factor in Milwaukee’s second half struggles.

The Bucks overachieved in the first half thanks in large part to their bench leading the NBA in points per game. Due to injuries to O.J. Mayo and Jared Dudley, Milwaukee is 29th in bench points per game since the All-Star break.

With Mayo and Dudley playing together for the first time in over two weeks Thursday against Indiana, the Bucks’ bench is getting healthy for the stretch run.

"This changes the whole makeup of our team, being deep," Bucks head coach Jason Kidd said. "Being able to play where we don’t have to run Giannis (Antetokounmpo’s) or Khris (Middleton’s) minutes up high, and we can play with that pace of get the rebound and go.

"We ran up Giannis’ minutes (Thursday), but as Duds and Juice get back we might not have to play Giannis at 40 minutes or Khris at 40 minutes. That would mean we are deeper and playing as we were at the start of the season."

Mayo returned to play six minutes Tuesday after missing 11 of Milwaukee’s last 14 games due to a right hamstring injury. Against the Pacers, Mayo scored three points with four assists in 13 minutes.

The rust was there for Dudley as well, as the veteran forward played Thursday for the first time since March 12. He went 1 of 3 from the field in 12 minutes, using an elliptical to keep his back loose while he wasn’t in the game.

"There was no pain when I played," Dudley said Friday. "Sometimes you worry when you come out of the game it will become stiff, but I did the elliptical in between time on the floor.

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"I woke up this morning and I felt better than I have the last four or five days. That’s even better. Maybe it loosened up. I’m back full go. With a tough stretch of games coming up, it is a perfect time for me and O.J. to get back and contribute."

Before the All-Star break, Milwaukee’s bench was second in the league in points per game at 42.3, while its starters were 27th in scoring at 56.9 points per game. The reverse has happened since the break, as the starters are averaging 69.1 points while the bench has contributed just 24.9 points per game.

Mayo has been at full strength for just three games in the second half, while Dudley has battled back issues for most of the last month. Throw in three missed games by Jerryd Bayless and it is easy to see why the Bucks have lacked consistent production from their bench.

"Early on this season the bench was doing its thing," Dudley said. "The starters have really elevated their game over the past few games. Now it is time for the bench to pick up their slack."

Getting Mayo and Dudley back with 10 games to play in the regular season will allow Kidd time to figure out how he wants to manage his roster come the playoffs.

"We can start getting our rotations down," Kidd said. "Our starters have been playing off the charts. We need that to continue. Then we need those guys coming off the bench to give them some help."

No break: While Milwaukee’s schedule will lighten up a bit come April, the Bucks will close out March with games against the teams leading their respective conferences.

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After hosting Golden State at the BMO Harris Bradley Center on Saturday, Milwaukee will travel to face Atlanta on Monday. The Bucks will catch the Warriors on the second game of a back-to-back, as Golden State puts its seven-game winning streak on the line at Memphis on Friday.

"I’m glad we are catching them on a back-to-back," Dudley said. "Hopefully they are tired. Hopefully Memphis wears them down. You never know. We’re at home. I always feel we have a chance to win every home game. Golden State, you have to respect them but you have to be able to attack them."

Golden State features the league’s most efficient offense and defense, while the Warriors also play with the quickest of any team. Guards Stephen Curry (23.4 points per game) and Klay Thompson (21.6) lead the way, while talented players like Draymond Green, Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes, David Lee and Andre Iguodala have bought into roles.

"They are the best team in the league," Kidd said. "They have a great coach. When you look at their players, they play at a very high level and are very entertaining. They get up a lot of shots. I think they are No. 1 in defense. Everybody talks about their offense, but they are pretty good defensively. It should be a good matchup for us to try to get better."

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