Saturday (AEDT) just got a lot more interesting.
The surging Milwaukee Bucks (36-35) come back to town riding high after a 4-2 swing through the west, moving them into a tie with Indiana for the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference and a game behind Atlanta for the No. 5 spot.
And as luck would have it, guess who’s next on Milwaukee’s schedule.
The Bucks have lost four in a row to the Hawks, including the first three meetings this season, and seven of their last eight overall against Atlanta.
The Hawks come to Milwaukee looking to snap a five-game skid. They’ve lost eight of their last 11 overall to tie their loss total (34) from last season.
It hasn’t helped that Atlanta (37-34) has gone without forward Paul Millsap (knee tightness) for the last three games — he won’t play Friday — or Kent Bazemore, who has sat out the last two with a bone bruise in his right knee.
But with only 11 games remaining and seven of those teams either battling for a spot or jockeying for position, its crunch time for the Hawks.
“This is a great challenge for us, to be fighting a little bit for playoff spots,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “There’s teams behind us that are trying to move up. We don’t have a couple of our guys, but that’s how our league is. Everybody goes through it at different times. This just happens to be our time.”
Recent history aside, the Hawks will be in for a fight against the Bucks, who have won nine of their last 11 games to charge back into the playoff picture.
Not coincidentally, Milwaukee’s resurgence began when Khris Middleton returned to the starting lineup.
The fifth-year swingman missed the first 50 games of the season with a torn hamstring, but he is averaging 15.4 points on 49.3 percent shooting from the field, including 48.3 percent from outside the arc.
“Since he’s been back, he’s been our go-to-guy, our finisher at the end of games,” point guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “He’s our finisher not just because he is a scorer, but he’s a playmaker.
“He makes the great decisions at the end of games.”
Milwaukee’s climb up the standings aside, Bucks coach Jason Kidd is encouraging his players to stay in the moment. He wants them to focus on the game ahead and not the long-term possibilities.
“You can’t look ahead,” Kidd said. “We have to understand we can’t think about the fifth spot. We can’t think about the sixth spot or the seventh or eighth.”
In three meetings with the Bucks this season, the Hawks have averaged 110.6 points. Millsap averaged 20.7 and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo put up 24.3 with 9.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.0 steals.
“Every game counts for us right now,” Bucks center Greg Monroe said. “We’re in a good position, but we have to finish it out. It’s just locking in and trying to keep it going.”