Go west, young Bucks: Team will be tested on upcoming trip
ST. FRANCIS, Wis. -- A quick glance at the standings and it is abundantly clear which of the NBA's two conferences is stronger from top to bottom.
Seven of the eight Western Conference teams currently in playoff position have a winning percentage of at least .680. The current fourth seed in the Eastern Conference would be the eighth seed in the West, and that's probably only because the Oklahoma City Thunder have played most of the season without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
The Western Conference also has just three teams with a sub-.400 winning percentage, while the Eastern Conference has seven.
Over the course of the entire regular season, the Milwaukee Bucks will likely find success against the majority of the Eastern Conference. But how the Bucks fare in their 30 games against the Western Conference may determine if they make the playoffs or not.
Milwaukee begins one of its two four-game trips out west Monday night in Phoenix. The Bucks will continue on to Portland on Wednesday, Sacramento on Thursday and end their trip in Los Angeles with a game against the Clippers on Saturday.
"When you look at the Western Conference, you have seven teams playing close to .700 basketball," Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. "There are very talented teams out west, but that doesn't mean we can't compete and play hard. Our energy and effort has to be at an all-time high each time we take the floor."
Milwaukee has just seven winning road trips of at least three games against Western Conference teams in the past 22 years, with two of those coming during the 1999-2000 season and two more in the 2012-13 season.
The last time the Bucks finished a season with a winning road record against Western Conference teams was 1999-2000. Since then, they are a combined 59-169, including a 3-27 mark last season.
Milwaukee won in Phoenix for the first time in 26 years in January of 2013, snapping a 24-game losing streak. The Bucks are catching the Suns at a good time, as Phoenix has lost five straight and played Sunday in Oklahoma City.
The other winnable game on the trip comes against the Kings on Thursday. Sacramento has lost three in a row and fired coach Mike Malone late Sunday night. The Kings are 2-7 in the nine games DeMarcus Cousins has missed due to viral meningitis and haven't given a timetable for their star center to return to game action.
Portland and the Los Angeles Clippers have a combined home record of 18-5, making it tough to imagine the Bucks stealing wins at the Moda Center and Staples Center.
"It's huge because if we stay above water we'll be in great shape," Bucks forward Jared Dudley said of the west coast trip. "We've done well in the Eastern Conference.
"You've got to win the ones you're supposed to. So hopefully we can steal one here against the Clippers. You go against the Suns, and they're not playing great basketball. You have a chance there. You've got to win that one and Sacramento. And you throw it up against the Clippers and Blazers. Those are two tough places to win at."
The Bucks head into the four-game Western Conference swing riding high after breaking out of their own funk with an impressive 111-106 home victory over the Clippers on Saturday.
"We just want to build on it and take advantage of it," Bucks guard Brandon Knight said. "We beat a good team (Saturday). The biggest thing is to use it and carry it as momentum."
Milwaukee is 4-4 on the season against Western Conference foes, but three of those four wins have come at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. The Bucks' only road win against the West came against Minnesota, the Western Conference's worst team.
"What you try to do is in the fourth quarter, the last 5 minutes, give yourselves a chance," Dudley said. "That's all you can ask for. Sometimes we've learned from mistakes and won those games. Sometimes we've made some terrible plays and lost. That's where our youth has to keep improving and win some of those."
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