Bucks win sixth in a row; Races in both conferences stay tight

The longest current winning streak in the NBA (six games) belongs to a team that is on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff race. The second-longest current winning streak is four games, shared by three teams — two of which are trying to qualify for the postseason.

With five weeks left in the regular season, after a night on which the Lakers, Clippers and Thunder all lost and the Heat needed a big fourth-quarter comeback, it’s looking like it will be an epic battle in both conferences to earn the right to keep playing into May.

Let’s start with the NBA’s hottest team, the Milwaukee Bucks.

They currently sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, a half-game behind the New York Knicks, a team they would have surpassed by now if not for a phenomenon becoming known as Woodsonity.

The Bucks’ sixth straight win came in Portland, where the Trail Blazers returned home after what was a dynamite seven-game road trip (and we don’t mean that in a good way). Two nights after defeating the Warriors in Oakland by 22 points, Milwaukee shot a season-high 57.8 percent and defeated Portland by 29 points, 116-87, to hand the Blazers their most lopsided home loss in more than three years.

The newest Buck, Monta Ellis, contributed 14 points and a team-high nine assists for a Milwaukee team that is about to play five games in six nights, including a matchup with the team they are chasing, the Knicks, who they have defeated twice this season.

From Charles Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: “I’m not impressed with the six games in a row,” Brandon Jennings said. “The fact now we’ve got three games in a row that are tough, it’s really going to be our challenge. “Against a team like Boston that’s in the playoff hunt. Charlotte, a team that beat us the first game of the season and we always have trouble winning in Charlotte. And then Indiana. This is where the challenge starts. I’m happy we’re on a good run, but it’s really time to focus now and prepare for what’s coming up.” Ellis and center Ekpe Udoh will finally get to make their home debuts on Thursday night when the Bucks play the Celtics at the Bradley Center. Then it’s at Charlotte on Friday before returning home to face the Pacers on Saturday. And after just one day off, it will be a back-to-back set starting with the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Monday and ending with Atlanta at home on Tuesday. Ellis continued to make a huge impact after arriving last week in the Andrew Bogut deal with Golden State. The 26-year-old guard helped ignite a 13-0 run early in the third quarter that stretched the Bucks’ lead from nine points to 71-49. Ellis started the run with a three-pointer and followed with a darting drive inside the Trail Blazers’ defense and a kick out to a wide-open Delfino for a three. Ellis then found Ersan Ilyasova for a jumper before sinking one himself, and suddenly the Bucks were up by 19.”

If the Bucks cam somehow manage to sweep their back-to-back-to-back set, they’ll likely come into New York with a lead over the Knicks in the standings. Then again, it’s tough to predict that the Knicks will falter between now and then if they continue to keep playing they way they have since Mike D’Antoni was replaced as head coach  by Mike Woodson.

They are 4-0 under Woodson, they are playing stifling defense, and they are heading into Philadelphia with a head of steam for tonight’s matchup against the division-leading 76ers.

From Howard Beck of the New York Times: “The smile is back on Carmelo Anthony’s face, broad and beaming and wholly subject to interpretation. There is happiness there, to be sure, but also likely relief and perhaps some satisfaction. Yet there is no mistaking Anthony’s mood shift over the last seven days, coinciding with a new Knicks winning streak and a change in coaches from Mike D’Antoni to Mike Woodson. The good times continued Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden as the Knicks rolled past the lowly Toronto Raptors, 106-87, stretching their winning streak to four games. Anthony is still searching for his jump shot (5 for 15), but he put together a complete game, with 17 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals, along with some animated defense and many gleeful grins along the way. “He’s been playing phenomenal, he really has,” Amar’e Stoudemire said. “He’s been facilitating. Teams have been double-teaming him; he’s been doing a great job of finding guys when they’re open. He’s been a great leader out there on the court. He’s playing great defensively. So that’s something that we look forward to from him.” Anthony had chafed under D’Antoni’s direction and sagged through the Knicks’ six-game losing streak, ultimately leading to D’Antoni’s resignation last week. Anthony’s renewal and Woodson’s firm hand have sparked the Knicks’ longest winning streak since early February, when they won seven in a row. Each of the last four wins has been by 14 points or greater. “I think now we’re playing at a different level, a very high level,” Anthony said.

In the Western Conference, the Phoenix Suns had been making some noise by winning nine of their first 11 games this month to climb into playoff contention after being written off for dead.

They embarked on a four-game road trip that began Tuesday night in Miami, and things were looking even more positive with 7 1/2 minutes remaining against the Heat as they opened a 10-point lead, 90-80.

Nearly 6 1/2 minutes later, following three turnovers and nine consecutive missed shots, they were still stuck on 90 points and had surrendered a 17-0 run.

From Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic: “If the Suns could freeze time, it would have been at 7:28 of the fourth quarter in the game they played Tuesday night at Miami. They would be hard-pressed to feel better about themselves than at that moment. The all-bench lineup had given the Suns a 90-80 lead over the Heat when Sebastian Telfair penetrated the lane and beautifully flicked the ball to the opposite wing for a Shannon Brown 3-pointer that had the starters doing the scurry off the bench usually reserved for reserves. That turnaround from an early nine-point hole to leading by 10 in crunch time would have been a moment to savor for a while. Instead, they had to swallow blowing the lead by allowing a 17-0 Miami run, and it went down like a bitter pill without water. The Suns’ four-game win streak and flirtation with a winning record went down in a 99-95 loss to Miami at American Airlines Arena. “I don’t take anything out of it but a loss,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. “The moral victory thing is long gone. We have to have wins. We put ourselves in a position, and we let it slip away. The biggest disappointment is that we did get stops, and they got the ball back on rebounds. That can’t happen in the guts of games.” It was a game like the Suns’ March 7 visit to Oklahoma City that showed the Suns’ capabilities and their frailties. At Oklahoma City, the Suns led by 16 with 16 minutes to go in the game and submerged in a similar flood of errors at both ends to another elite team.”

The Suns dropped 1 1/2 games behind the eighth-place Houston Rockets and 1 game behind the Utah Jazz in the tightly-packed Western Conference as both of those teams posted impressive victories.

Goran Dragic had 16 points and 13 assists in the Rockets’ 107-104 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers, and Paul Millsap led six players in double figures with 20 points on 10-of-16 shooting in Utah’s 97-90 victory over the conference-leading Oklahoma City Thunder.

Utah has won four in a row, while Houston has knocked off the Thunder and Lakers on the past two Tuesdays.

From Brian Smith of the Salt Lake Tribune: “Everything Utah has worked for since training camp began for the 2011-12 season came to life. And when Utah saw the light Tuesday, it didn’t just briefly awaken, then give the game away. The Jazz leapt to the top, stayed there, and slammed a 97-90 win down the Thunder’s throat. Paul Millsap’s team-high 20 points on 10-of-16 shooting tells part of the story for Utah (24-22), which won its fourth consecutive contest and jumped into sole possession of ninth place in the Western Conference, a half game behind eighth-place Houston. Six Jazz players hitting double-figures in scoring — including 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting by third-string point guard Jamaal Tinsley — was part of the picture. There was Utah’s C.J. Miles and Gordon Hayward defensively pairing up, holding (Kevin) Durant to 6-of-22 shooting. The Jazz outscoring the Thunder 50-20 in the paint while forcing 20 OKC turnovers. Thirteen points in just 2 minutes and 47 seconds from Devin Harris, including three 3-pointers, which pushed Utah to a 14-point lead early during the third quarter. But as good as the action looked, it left out one word: domination. The Jazz dominated the Thunder (34-12) at EnergySolutions Arena before a crowd of 18,138. … Utah owned the Thunder for 48 minutes, unleashing its best overall performance of the season.”

From Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle: “As perilous as the Rockets’ position seemed to be again and again, from the 40 points they allowed in the first quarter to the 17-point deficit they faced and even the 12-point lead Los Angeles held with just seven minutes remaining, the Lakers seemed to be saving the worst news for last. Los Angeles led by seven points when Kobe Bryant returned to the floor to the chants of “Kobe, Kobe” from the throngs of Lakers fans who helped fill Toyota Center. The Rockets, however, had been wriggling their way out of every trap all night. With rookie Chandler Parsons chasing Bryant, they stopped him long enough to surge to the lead. And when it was time to close out a win, rather than Bryant slamming the door, Courtney Lee and Goran Dragic finished off the Rockets’ largest comeback of the season to stun the Lakers 107-104 on Tuesday night. The Rockets took off on a 13-0 fourth-quarter run to get back in the game. They took the win, however, when Lee found Dragic alone in the corner — just as Dragic had passed to Lee to complete a comeback win in Oklahoma City — for a 3-pointer with 28 seconds left. The Rockets didn’t trail again. “Lakers at home after losing two, we wanted this one,” Parsons said. “They’re a great team. We had to play for the entire 48 minutes. And we never gave up after we got down big.”

There were two other games played on what was a relatively light night in this compressed 66-game season.

  • Leandro Barbosa scored 12 points in 18 minutes in his Pacers debut, and Indiana beat the Los Angeles Clippers 102-89. Reserves Barbosa, Tyler Hansbrough and George Hill led a bench that outscored the Clippers’ reserves 50-23. Hansbrough scored 17 points and Hill had 15. The Clippers missed 11 of 20 free throws. Nick Young got his first start for the Clippers since being acquired from Washington, finishing with 13 points on 5-for-13 shooting.
  • Marcus Thornton scored 31 points, DeMarcus Cousins had 23 points and five rebounds, and the Kings defeated Memphis 119-110 for their second three-game winning streak this season. Thornton added seven rebounds and six assists, and Tyreke Evans (who has ceded his starting spot to John Salmons) returned after missing the previous two games because of a sprained left ankle, scoring nine of his 13 points in the fourth quarter to help the Kings pull away.
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