With a month and a half left in the NBA regular season, the Milwaukee Bucks are taking their position within the Eastern Conference playoff race seriously, which means expecting a more dialed in mentality from one another.
The Bucks finish up a four-game, seven-day West Coast road trip on Wednesday in Golden State, where they will play the Pacific Division-leading Warriors – and arguably the league’s best team – for the first time this season.
It’s not really a measuring-stick type of game, although a win would be encouraging, considering the Bucks will enter that game with only a 7-18 mark against current playoff teams, including a 3-10 mark against the top five seeds in the Eastern Conference.
They also know four of those "signature" wins comes with some caveats.
- Oklahoma City was without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
- The Los Angeles Clippers were coming off a loss in Washington D.C. the night before.
- The win in Atlanta was off the two-day Christmas break.
- Cleveland was without LeBron James, Kevin Love and Shawn Marion.
Basketball players know one another, and the ebbs and flows of the season and "catching" a team at the right time. But, that said, the Bucks are solidly in the sixth seed and have designs on trying to catch the Wizards for the fifth seed, and maybe climbing the standings to pick off the now Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls.
"You’re still in the picture. And you need to act like it," said Bucks center Zaza Pachulia, who has been a part of four playoff teams in Atlanta. "You gotta prepare. You gotta play like it. Everything happens for a reason. There are so many little things that are important and you have to take care of, and it comes thing after thing."
One of those little things has been an emphasis on winning every game, or understanding that, at a certain point in the schedule, it’s important to win a game.
It sounds simple. But remember, many of the key players on the Bucks were part of a 15-win team last year, or have never been a key part of a playoff team.
For instance, the team viewed the home overtime win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 4 as a must-win, to beat a bad team at home before heading to play a very good team in Houston on the road two days later (a game the Bucks would lose).
The team also viewed winning the first-half ending game against Sacramento as a must-win, and the first game coming out of the break against Denver following the trade of Brandon Knight.
"Yeah, last year we didn’t have the mentality to win, ‘this is a must win game’ to get back on track," Khris Middleton admitted. "We definitely had a lot of those this year.
"It’s definitely a different mindset, a different mentality in this locker room."
It’s why the players set the goal to get to 30 wins by the break, meaning playing .500 ball (essentially) afterward could net them 45 wins. They are very aware of where they stand in the playoff picture, and what it can mean for the franchise, even after trading away their leading scorer and working three new players into the rotation.
"We’re in good spot to make the playoffs," said forward Jared Dudley, who has appeared in two playoff series with Phoenix and the Los Angeles Clippers. "For us, this year is about, early on, was developing our young talent, which we have done. And now that we’re in a playoff position, it’s getting experience now, it’s getting Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and other guys in the playoffs to see how it is. The playoffs is such a different mindset. Every possession counts. You’re zoned in on one team. You know their plays. They have to experience that here."
At the head of the ship is head coach Jason Kidd, who coached the Brooklyn Nets into the second round of the playoffs last year and played in the playoffs in 17 of his 19 seasons as a player.
He encourages goal setting, and acknowledged that the final 29 games that made up the "second half" of the NBA season following the All-Star break would be a sprint to the finish, but he’s tried to stay in the present, and maintaining the "one game at a time" mentality he and his staff have tried to instill.
"I think it’s more of a compliment to the guys in the locker room, the hard work, for them to come together as fast as they have, the trust, the process continues," Kidd said. "But, it doesn’t really mean anything until April, until we play 82 games and then we can look back and see what we’ve accomplished. But at that point hopefully we’re in the playoffs and getting ready for our first round."
Of the final 23 games, the Bucks will play a team with a winning record 11 times, and March is especially difficult with two games against the Warriors and the New Orleans Pelicans and games against San Antonio and Memphis. That’s not to mention contests against Washington, Cleveland and Atlanta.
The eight-game schedule in April is a little easier, with only games against the Bulls and Cavaliers posing any real threat.
It’s a much different mood heading into this stretch run than last year.
"If you were a bad team, like last year, we had that experience, second half, you just can’t wait for the season to be over because you know you’re not going to make the playoffs and energy is down, no confidence, fans not showing love, so many negative things. This situation is totally different," Pachulia said.
"Now, it’s time to pick up. Now it’s time to play even better basketball. The last couple games they were great. We were 8-2, 9-1 the last 10 games (before the all-star break), so it’s been great, but we have to make it even better now."
Which means beating some of these better teams, as well as picking off "must wins" against many of the bottom feeding Eastern Conference teams sprinkled throughout the rest of the schedule.
"All games gotta matter because at the end of the season we kind of was thinking about we should win that game or that game, it’s why you have eliminate all those doubts about it," said Ersan Ilyasova, the only member of the Bucks to have appeared in two playoff series for the franchise.
"Finish strong. Whatever comes in the playoffs, who we play against, who we’re going to match against, after, we’ll think about it."
Oh, and there’s one other thing the team is making sure to focus on over the final seven weeks.
"It’s so much fun," Pachulia said with a smile. "I’m telling you, it’s fun. It’s great. So many great things coming from that. It’s just interesting, man. A different game. Atmosphere. Energy. I don’t want to go very ahead, but this is a reality. We’re in the playoff picture, so we have to act accordingly."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.