With the All Star Break in the rearview mirror and only 25 games remaining on the road to the playoffs, the Milwaukee Bucks are officially in “put up or shut up” mode. At 32-25 and sixth in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks are slightly behind where most expected them to be, but have gained ground in the Joe Prunty Era: 9-3 since jettisoning former coach Jason Kidd and a defensive rating that has crept into the middle-third of the league.
The standings in the East have tightened up across the three main tiers: the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics are jockeying with one another for the top position, while looking back at a rejuvenated Cleveland Cavaliers team that, with an engaged LeBron James, could easily make up the 6.5 game deficit between them and the 1-seed. Beneath them are the Bucks, locked into a fierce battle with the Washington Wizards and Indiana Pacers for the final home-court seed. Lastly, we have the Philadelphia 76ers, Miami Heat, and Detroit Pistons involved in an intense game of musical chairs: three will enter but only two will make the postseason.
At the end of January, it was unclear just how high the Bucks could rise in the standings, and at the time there was (and mathematically speaking, still is) a chance for Milwaukee to usurp the 3-seed.
Exhibit A: the NBA standings as of 01/31, where the Bucks currently hold the 6th seed. pic.twitter.com/uzrV8Wc1ZC— Mitchell Maurer (@Mitchell_NBA) January 31, 2018
Now, tell me which of those three teams can keep pace with the Bucks over these next 10 games: @ MIN, NYK, @ BRK, @ NYK, @ MIA, @ ORL, ATL, DEN, @ TOR, NOP— Mitchell Maurer (@Mitchell_NBA) January 31, 2018
Again...the Milwaukee Bucks somehow have a path to the EC 3rd seed!
A lot can happen in a few weeks. Since posting those 10-game schedules, the Cavs (5-2 while dealing with a new roster) turned their season around, the Heat (1-7) fell into a deep rut and are struggling to get out, and while the Wizards (5-2) have been able to stay afloat despite the absence of John Wall, the Pacers (5-2) have made a surprising charge and are in the thick of the postseason conversation, just like the Bucks (5-3).
Milwaukee, unfortunately, has a particularly bumpy road coming up. While the previous eight games may have been favorable, the next eight games are anything but. In order, the Bucks will take on:
- Toronto (in Toronto)
- New Orleans Pelicans
- Detroit (in Detroit)
- Indiana (in Indiana)
- Houston Rockets
The Bucks may have a better record than five of the seven teams listed above, but in keeping with the First Rule of Bucks Fandom, there’s just as much reason to expect a 6-2 stretch as there is to expect a 2-6 result. Any stumbles here will push the Bucks much closer to .500 than anybody is willing to accept, and while the stretch of games following the Houston matchup includes something of a reprieve (Knicks at home, Memphis on the road, Orlando on the road, Hawks at home, Cleveland on the road, Clippers at home, and Bulls on the road), the margin for error is already razor-thin for Milwaukee.
Further compounding the Bucks’ impending tightrope-walking through a minefield is the team’s depth issues. The hope is that the lingering issues bothering Giannis Antetokounmpo (knee), Eric Bledsoe (wrist, ankle), and John Henson (hamstring), but hope wanes at the point guard position when considering that Matthew Dellavedova (ankle) seems to need more time to get into game-ready condition, and Malcolm Brogdon (quad) will be out even longer.
There are positives working for the Bucks, too. Khris Middleton ought to be refreshed from the break. Thon Maker and Sterling Brown have looked improved as of late, and Tyler Zeller has contributed more than expected. Jabari Parker will still be stuck on a minutes restriction, but the more he plays the higher his comfort level will get...which will help to mitigate Mirza Teletovic‘s continued absence.
In taking the long view on the rest of the season, it’s reasonable to expect that the Bucks falter against their upcoming slate of stronger competition, and regain some of that lost ground in the stretch that follows. If that happens and they can remain where they are now (7 games above .500), that still keeps them on a 48-win pace with less than a dozen games left before the regular season is over.
The fact that the Bucks are still within striking distance of 50 wins after the major changes that took place over the course of the season is remarkable. As their last campaign in the BMO Harris Bradley Center winds down, it’s refreshing to feel optimistic about Milwaukee’s chances for a home-court playoff series before moving into the new arena next season.
Whether or not optimism for the Bucks will translate to bad luck for their competition remains to be seen. Washington and Indiana have equal reason to feel good about their chances (and how they compare to Milwaukee), and there’s no counting out the teams behind them. If I had to put odds on whether or not the Bucks will end up with the 4-seed, I would put it at 50/50 as of today, but right now I’d bet that they do end up in that spot.
Things change quickly in the NBA! Tonight’s games will start reshaping the final act of the 2017-18 season. What do you think will happen? Who will take the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference? If not Milwaukee, who, and why? Let us know in the comments and on Twitter, and we’ll see you tomorrow night as we kick off the home stretch against the Raptors!