Two down, two to go in soft stretch for Bucks
MILWAUKEE -- If the Milwaukee Bucks are going to make a serious push for the playoffs, this is the week to do it. Two games into a stretch of four against below-.500 teams, so far, so good.
A road win Monday over the Washington Wizards was followed Wednesday by a 107-98 victory at home against the Kyrie Irving-less Cleveland Cavaliers.
With 12 regular-season games remaining, Milwaukee is now just one game behind the New York Knicks for the Eastern Conference's eighth and final playoff spot.
If the Bucks do pass the Knicks and qualify for the postseason, a date with the top-seeded Chicago Bulls likely awaits. If that happens, expectations will be high in Milwaukee's locker room.
"If we're fortunate enough to get there, we're going to compete and we expect to win," small forward Mike Dunleavy said. "We're going to not only in the next few weeks try and get wins and get in the playoffs, we're going to prepare ourselves to play one of these teams, go in there and go on the road and get a win when we need to get a win."
Wednesday's matchup with the Cavs was the first of five consecutive games at home for the Bucks. Next up is the NBA's worst team, with the 7-45 Charlotte Bobcats traveling to Milwaukee on Friday, followed by the Portland Trail Blazers (25-29) on Saturday. After a difficult matchup with the Western Conference's top team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, coming up Monday, the Bucks' home stand will conclude with an ultra-important game against New York.
"We haven't necessarily played well at home, haven't protected our home court, and now is the time of the year we have to do it," Dunleavy said.
After beating the Cavs, Milwaukee is 13-12 at home this season.
But even without Irving, who is a lock for NBA Rookie of the Year, Cleveland outscored the Bucks on Wednesday in the final three quarters to keep the game close until the last minute.
"It's a team we feel like we should handle a little bit easier than we did," coach Scott Skiles said. "We won the game. It's good to see. You have to give them a lot of credit. Without Kyrie and being down like that at the end of the first quarter, that'd be a very easy game to just mail in. They hung in there. They took it to us a little bit in the second half.
"We won the game. We're happy to have the win. I don't want to minimize it. We're happy to have the win. This would've been a devastating loss."
Fortunately for Skiles and the Bucks, Monta Ellis took over in the fourth quarter. In the final 4:32 of the game, Ellis made all eight of his shots and scored 16 points.
"He made some tough shots," Cleveland guard Anthony Parker said of Ellis, whom he was guarding that entire time. "He's a guy that's super-fast. He's such a good player that once he gets it going, it's tough to stop."
Ellis finished with 30 points and said afterward that he's not worried whatsoever about what the Knicks -- or the seventh-seeded and struggling Philadelphia 76ers -- are doing.
"We just have to worry about us," Ellis said. "We can't worry about the next team."
Though Ellis may not be interested, the 76ers lost to the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday, and the Knicks play at Orlando on Thursday night.
Follow Paul Imig on Twitter.