Bucks Monday: Heat matchup begins crucial week in keeping playoff chances afloat

Miami's Dwyane Wade (left) is averaging 25.4 points and shooting 50.5 percent in March.

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ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — Believe it or not, the Milwaukee Bucks are still very much alive in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

While the Bucks have lost six straight, the vast majority of teams chasing them have failed to capitalize on Milwaukee’s inability to snap out of its post-All-Star break funk.

One team that has is Miami. The Heat have moved to within 1 1/2 games of Milwaukee for the sixth seed, setting up a crucial showdown between the Bucks and the Heat on Tuesday at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.

"For us, the good thing about it, we’ve been playing very poorly but a lot of teams maybe besides Miami have been playing poorly too," Bucks forward Jared Dudley said. "We still have a little ground. This is it. This is what you work for. For us, I’m happy where we’re at, because we played so well first half to give us a cushion.

"We’re here at the final stretch to get this team to the playoffs, which is our goal. I think it will be good for the city, good for the organization, get some of the guys experience to build on next year."

The game against Miami begins what is an important week for the Bucks. Indiana will come to the BMO Harris Bradley Center on Thursday in a fight for its playoff life. The Pacers currently sit on the outside looking in with Boston, 1/2 game behind Charlotte for the eighth seed and 3 1/2 games back of Milwaukee.

"I think we are all aware of the standings and what is at stake," Bucks guard O.J. Mayo said. "I think it is a big stretch for us. We want to finish the season on a high note."

Despite losing Chris Bosh for the season in February, the Heat are 10-7 since the All-Star break. The Bucks are 3-0 against the Heat this season, but Miami has a very different look since the two teams last met on Jan. 27.

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Miami swung a trade deadline deal to acquire point guard Goran Dragic from Phoenix, shifting Mario Chalmers to a backup role. Luol Deng is now healthy, while the recently-signed Michael Beasley is providing the Heat with a scoring option off the bench.

"They are well coached and they have a system," Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. "They have relied on that system no matter what name is on the back of that jersey. D-Wade has been there just as long as the head coach. When you have that system when your best player believes in it and leads every day, they are always going to be right there for a playoff spot."

Dragic has made a significant impact on Miami’s offense, while Dwyane Wade is healthy and playing at a high level. Wade is averaging 25.4 points and shooting 50.5 percent in March, earning himself Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors for the week of March 16-22.

"You expect them to do that," Dudley said of the Heat coming on strong. "I know they don’t have Bosh but the team has been to a championship. They have Wade, they traded for Goran, they have All-Star caliber players. It’s a good culture over there. We didn’t expect them to just roll over."

Wins over Miami and Indiana would go a long way to solidifying Milwaukee’s place in the playoffs. The Bucks already hold the tiebreaker over the Heat, so a 1 1/2 game lead is really a 2 1/2 game lead in theory.

On the other hand, the possibility of a complete collapse would increase significantly if the Bucks can’t stop their skid before Golden State comes to the BMO Harris Bradley Center on Saturday.

"For us it’s just getting in the win column," Dudley said. "You’ve got to do whatever you can. If it’s got to be a nasty game, a pretty game, whatever game it has to be for you to win, the day kind of dictates that. You’ve just got to find a way."

Injury update: Reinforcements may be coming for the Bucks, as Dudley and Mayo returned to practice Monday. It was the first basketball activity either has participated in since they both were sent home from Milwaukee’s last road trip to receive treatment.

Mayo (hamstring) and Dudley (back) are officially listed as questionable for Tuesday’s game against Miami.

"There’s no set timetable," Kidd said. "There’s not a rush. We want them to be 100 percent or close to 100 percent when they come back so they aren’t in and out of the lineup. We’ll see how this goes."

Dudley has missed five straight games, while Mayo’s nagging hamstring injury has forced him to sit out 11 of Milwaukee’s last 14.

Both players left the team last Monday to return to Milwaukee to receive treatment at the team’s training facility. Dudley said he recently received an epidural injection to help relieve the pain in his back.

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"It felt good to be back out there, obviously," Mayo said. "It is a tough time so you want to be out there with the guys working through it and competing with them. It feels a little bit better when you are out there in the fight as opposed to on the sidelines."

A significant factor in Milwaukee’s slide has been the lack of production it is getting from its bench. At one point during the season, the Bucks had the highest scoring bench in the NBA.

Milwaukee has the second-lowest scoring bench since the All-Star break at 25.4 points per game. Getting Dudley and Mayo back would go a long way in helping the Bucks get more out of their bench.

"This is a team game and we’ve been built as a team," Kidd said. "It’s not just one guy. We’ve played 10 to 11 guys and early on our bench was playing at a high level. Right now our bench isn’t giving us anything.

"We’ve got to get something better from our bench and not just rely on those five guys that are starting."

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