MEMPHIS – Since the all-star break ended the Milwaukee Bucks have gone 10-4 with wins over then-Eastern Conference leaders Miami and Chicago, Western Conference leader Phoenix and snapped a two-decade losing streak in Utah.
Once painfully close to the play-in tournament, the Bucks appear comfortably out of that picture with five-game cushion on the seventh-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers with eight to play.
And the Bucks are just a half game out of the No. 1 seed… while sitting in fourth place in the conference. The final eight games could be a mad dash for the top spot and home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.
With a 3-0 record against Chicago and a three-game lead over the stumbling Bulls for the fifth seed, the Bucks don’t appear in much danger of falling any further than fourth in the East and hosting at least a first-round playoff series.
But the defending NBA champions may have also entered that period of the season where they must make health decisions for the playoffs that could prevent them from closing the regular season on a tear.
“Each year has its own unique situations and circumstances,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said before the Chicago game on March 22 that Khris Middleton missed. “But I think to have the team as healthy as possible is something that is very important. Layered into healthy is maybe, if possible, having not worn down mentally or physically (players).
“So, sometimes injures can be a little bit of a silver lining. For Khris to miss a game, it’s a big game obviously, but for him to not play, there’s some silver linings. Sports performances and the coaches, including Jon (Horst), front office, we put our head together and try to make good decisions for ultimately what’s most important which is being healthy and playing our best basketball going into the playoffs.”
Center Brook Lopez admitted as much, believing that he’ll be peaking in time for the playoffs after returning from back surgery on March 14. Pat Connaughton had missed just three games and logged about 27 minutes per contest before being sidelined with a broken finger for a month. He’s averaged 13.5 points since returning on March 19.
Giannis Antetokounmpo missed two of the last four games with right knee soreness (two losses) and stepped on a Memphis player with his left foot on Sunday – though he remained in the game and didn’t appear worse for wear afterward.
Middleton missed two games (two wins) with left wrist soreness. Jrue Holiday missed the Memphis loss on Saturday with left ankle soreness and didn’t make the trip before the team returned home to Milwaukee.
The defending champions have their sights set on another long playoff run and even the players know there is a balance to be struck between the short-term decision of playing or taking advantage of one of their final opportunities to get off their feet.
Five of Milwaukee’s remaining games are on the road (Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland) and three at home (Los Angeles Clippers, Dallas, Boston).
And they have two back-to-backs remaining where they are traveling home, or out of Milwaukee, immediately after the first game.
No Bucks player has played in every game this season following a 70-day offseason for the players who did not participate in the summer Olympics.
“Obviously, you’ve got to start taking care of your body because we’ve played a season for 82 games – obviously a lot of players have missed a couple of games in-between those – so a lot of games have played 70, 65, and there’s a bunch of injuries like lingering you know?” Antetokounmpo said in Memphis.
“Like somebody’s knee, ankle, back, hips. You’ve got to start taking care of your body. You don’t want to go into the playoffs having all these things lingering. You want to be 100% healthy because once you go into the playoffs and competing, stuff is going to happen there.
“Like last year in the playoffs I had my knee, I had my elbow, I had sprained my ankle, tweaked my ankle a coupe times. It’s going to be stuff happening because you’re competing so hard. So, as a team, we’ve got to keep playing good basketball, keep building good habits. There’s nothing we necessarily have to change. I think we’re in a very, very good place. Now, if that means we’re going to win a championship, I don’t know. I can’t predict the future. I don’t think nobody in here knows. But we know we’re in a good place and we can put ourselves in position to win. And now take care of our bodies, for sure.
“Everybody has to be healthy. Hopefully – knock on wood – nobody gets injured for the last eight games and everybody finishes the season healthy and happy and go into the playoffs and enjoy the game and compete as hard as we can.”