Win over Heat shows how far Bucks have come

MILWAUKEE — Earlier this week, Bucks coach Scott Skiles was asked whether his team was respected throughout the NBA.

Of course, he said he didn’t know how to answer. But if there were any question whether the Milwaukee Bucks are a legitimate playoff team in the Eastern Conference, they answered that query about as emphatically as they could with Saturday’s 104-85 statement win against the Miami Heat.

After playing a great first half, the Bucks took a haymaker from the defending champions. Milwaukee opened the third quarter by making 3 of 24 shots as Miami went on a 27-6 run to take a 71-62 lead with 2:40 left in the period. The Bucks had stopped moving the ball, and the sold-out BMO Harris Bradley Center went from rocking to quiet enough to hear a small contingent of Heat fans above the dither.

Then, in perhaps its best stretch of basketball of the season, Milwaukee outscored the Heat 42-14 the rest of the way.  Playoff-like atmosphere is an overused descriptor, but the arena had a different feel Saturday. Even the usually buttoned-down Skiles got animated during a timeout amid Miami’s run, stomping his feet and letting Bucks center Larry Sanders have it.

His message was simple: Get back to playing our game.

“There’s no magic dust. I shouldn’t get any credit for that,” Skiles said. “Other than we talked about that we were too slow. We were kind of just walking into our sets.

“We played a very good first half in large part because we got to create our pace out there. Then we came out in the third and missed some layups and shots but also just kind of starting walking up and down the floor. That’s not really our game. We don’t play very well when we do that.”

Saturday’s win alone doesn’t cement Milwaukee’s place among the playoff teams in the Eastern Conference, but it’s the most convincing argument so far that this team is the real deal. The Bucks are 14-6 against the Eastern Conference this season, and only the Los Angeles Clippers have more conference wins in the entire league. The Bucks also now have eight wins against the other eight teams currently in the East’s playoff mix.

Still, this is a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2010, one that knows there is much work to be done to extend a 16-12 overall record that has the Bucks tied for first place in the Central Division.

“It’s a win against the defending champions and one of the best teams in the league right now, so it means a lot, especially on our home floor where we’ve struggled against some good teams,” Bucks forward Mike Dunleavy said. “But at the end of day they, all count the same. If you look at this win, you feel great about it.

“Then you have games against Cleveland, at Charlotte, at New Orleans where, man, I wish we would have won those, too. I’ll take it for tonight, it was a nice win, but we have to bounce back tomorrow night.”

Who knows the respect level the Bucks would command if they hadn’t dropped the three games Dunleavy mentioned, but that’s a moot point. All Milwaukee can do now is make sure it beats Detroit on Sunday, and in the meantime, the Bucks are picking up believers.

“Milwaukee kicked our butt,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They were the better team tonight.”

So Skiles probably doesn’t have to guess what the rest of the league thinks of his team. He’s also becoming more sure of what he thinks of it.

“It’s clear when we are playing our best, how we have to play,” Skiles said. “I think that’s clear. It’s just getting it a little more consistently.

“I know they know it. We’ve talked about it, they know it. There’s no resistance or anything, it’s not that easy always four games in five nights to peel the ball off the net and get up the floor with some energy. Like a lot of teams, that’s when we play our best.”

For all but one nine-minute stretch Saturday, Milwaukee was at its best, leaving little doubt this is a  team that has turned a corner.

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