Bucks look to stay sharp against Knicks

Back in the playoffs for the second straight year for the first time since 2003 and 2004, the Milwaukee Bucks can hardly afford a second straight slip-up when they face the New York Knicks on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.

Two days after allowing the Brooklyn Nets to claw back from a fourth-quarter deficit, the Bucks head over the Brooklyn Bridge to square off with a Knicks squad that rebounded from a 73-point performance with a 122-98 win over Miami on Friday night. Before the game, the Knicks were the coldest team in the Eastern Conference, losers of four straight.

And speaking of cold: The Bucks had better heat up in a hurry after shooting 25 percent from 3-point range against the Nets in the 119-111 loss.

“We couldn’t shoot it in the ocean,” Bucks forward Jabari Parker said. “They did a really good job, though, you got to put your hands up to them.”

The Bucks hardly did that on defense against the woeful Nets, allowing Brooklyn to shoot 48 percent from 3-point range in the loss.

With the Bucks having an outside chance at the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, now is no time for Milwaukee to get lazy on defense.

“This would not be good enough to win a game in the playoffs,” Bucks coach Joe Prunty said. “I’m not worried about the playoffs right now. … We need to play very good basketball regardless of our opponent and tonight is an example of (not playing well enough).”

In the Knicks, the Bucks find a team with any postseason hopes long in the rear-view mirror. The Knicks are out of the playoffs for the fifth straight year and, if anything, the team appears to be playing for better lottery odds.

Too bad they dealt themselves too good a hand on Friday.

A 24-point win over the Heat put the Knicks a game behind the Chicago Bulls for the eighth-worst record in the NBA, and every lottery ping-pong ball matters.

“If you ask any of the players or coaches, that’s not (a thought),” Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek told reporters early this week. “We’ve said it all along that that’s not what we’re trying to do. With the guys out there, we’re trying to win the game, and that’s what we want from them.”

The two teams will meet for the fourth time in nine weeks, with Milwaukee claiming a 3-0 lead in the season series. The Bucks beat New York 92-90 at home on Feb. 2 and followed four days later with a 103-89 road win. A little over a month later, the Bucks again won at home, 120-112, behind Khris Middleton’s 30 points. Middleton has kicked up his scoring of late, scoring 31 against the Nets, six days after producing 28 points in a 124-122 win over the Los Angeles Lakers.

After Saturday’s matchup, the Knicks close their season with a home-and-home against the Cleveland Cavaliers, beginning Monday at Madison Square Garden for the final time this season before heading to Cleveland on Wednesday to wrap up the campaign.

Milwaukee hosts Orlando on Monday before heading to Philadelphia to play the 76ers on Wednesday for the Bucks’ final regular-season game.