Bucks much improved at midway point, but hardly satisfied

Led by head coach Jason Kidd, along with players like Jerryd Bayless (middle) and O.J. Mayo (right), the Bucks are currently in sixth place in the East.

ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — Considering even the most optimistic prognosticators had Milwaukee finishing with somewhere between 20 and 30 wins, the Bucks have been the NBA’s biggest surprise during the first half of the season.

At 21-20, the Bucks are currently on pace for one of the biggest single-season turnarounds in NBA history.

But that doesn’t mean they are content with where they are currently. The Bucks feel they are capable of more during the second half of the season, which begins Thursday when Milwaukee hosts Utah at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.

"We can do better," Bucks guard Brandon Knight said. "You don’t get awards for halfway through the season. We have a long way to go."

Milwaukee will make the playoffs if it plays close to .500 basketball over the final 41 games of the season, as the Eastern Conference is a top-heavy league.

The Bucks are in sixth place in the East, a half-game behind the Cleveland Cavaliers for fifth. While Atlanta and Washington are cruising at the top of the conference, Toronto and Chicago are in the midst of struggles.

Finishing fifth seems like the best-case scenario for Milwaukee. The Bucks are 2 1/2 games ahead of seventh-place Miami, four games ahead of eighth-place Brooklyn and in the playoffs by 4 1/2 games.   

Milwaukee has the most remaining home games of any Eastern Conference team, as 23 of its final 41 will be played at the Bradley Center.

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"Our strength of schedule is worse than it was in the first half," Bucks guard Jared Dudley said. "But that doesn’t mean it is guaranteed. Usually a young team that has had success does better in the second half.

"We could be as high as a five or six (seed). But we could be nine or 10 and be out if we don’t play it right."

The Bucks have established themselves as one of the NBA’s better defensive teams during the first half of the season. Milwaukee is third in defensive efficiency (number of points allowed per 100 possessions) at 99.2.

Finishing defensive possessions with a rebound has been an Achilles’ heel, as the Bucks allow offensive rebounds on 27.7 percent of misses by opponents, which is 26th in the NBA. 

"It is just understanding the principles and helping each other," Bucks head coach Jason Kidd said of Milwaukee’s defensive success. "We have to rebound better, but we’re making take a tough first shot. When we do rebound the ball, it helps our defense. Guys have bought in. Defense has helped us win 21 games.

"The energy and effort had been there defensively. If they didn’t buy in we wouldn’t be holding teams to what they are doing."

Whether or not the Bucks thrive in the second half could depend on if they can score enough to win defensive battles. Milwaukee is 22nd in offensive rating at 101.1 and one of 12 teams averaging under 100 points per game.

"We’ve made a lot of mistakes, just little things that good teams don’t do," Knight said. "We have to do a better job of having winning habits. Good teams don’t give up 20 offensive rebounds. They turn the ball over a lot less than we do. Things like that we have to do a better job of."

The Bucks have 12 games remaining before the All-Star break with seven of those coming at home and eight are against teams under .500. It is an important stretch if Milwaukee wants to improve its record before going out to the West Coast shortly after the extended break.

We can do better. You don’t get awards for halfway through the season. We have a long way to go.

Brandon Knight

"It is big for us," Dudley said. "Look at the standings. Seven, eight, nine, 10 (seeds) are all close and all teams under .500. We have to stay at .500 or above and maintain it.

"A lot of these teams start folding. Trade deadline hits, veterans start getting cut, people get bought out, and teams really start planning for that draft. For us, it is really about getting ahead of that curve so when teams are packing it in we can get a couple of wins maybe we weren’t supposed to."

Stealing wins against the top teams in the league has been a challenge for the Bucks. Milwaukee is 1-7 against the top four teams in the Eastern Conference, while it is 15-5 against teams currently under .500.

"The better teams usually win those close games," Dudley said. "Until we get there, we’ll be right in the middle of the pack. That’s where we are. We’re a middle team. We’ll beat the bad teams and every now and then we’ll beat a good team. That’s just who we are right now."

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