MILWAUKEE — Before the season, few figured the Milwaukee Bucks would be challenging for the Central Division lead.
Yet here they are at 15-12, just a half-game behind division-leading Indiana and tied with Chicago. With Detroit and Cleveland struggling, the Central is currently a three-team race between Chicago, Indiana and Milwaukee.
The Bulls are eagerly awaiting the return of star guard Derrick Rose from a knee injury and the Pacers are in similar situation with injured star Danny Granger, with both not expected back until February at the earliest. That leaves the Bucks, often maddeningly frustrating so far this season, with an outside chance of grabbing their first division title since 2001.
"Based on the records, you have to think (there's a chance)," says Mike Dunleavy, Jr., one of the team's most consistent players this season. "Nobody has separated themselves to this point. Until somebody does that, it's anybody's race."
It's been an up-and-down season for the Bucks, who opened eyes with a 6-2 start but followed that with just two victories in their next nine games. After a four-game winning streak, Milwaukee has alternated wins and losses, and like many teams in the East, is trying to separate itself from the pack.
"We're 15-12," coach Scott Skiles says. "I don't think we're a finished product yet. We're still trying to figure out some things."
After a bruising stretch of four games in five nights, the Bucks got a bit of a breather with just one game - a 108-93 victory over Brooklyn on Wednesday night (Thursday, Manila time) - over the course of a week. Along with getting a chance to rest weary legs and get injured players healthy, the break also let the Bucks get back on the practice court to clean up some loose ends.
"We're OK right now, but we can get better," guard Monta Ellis says. "Hopefully we make that run and separate ourselves. We just have to worry about us; one day, one game at a time and see what happens."
The Bucks' defense, a hallmark of Skiles-coached teams, has taken some time to come around, but has started to show some consistency. Milwaukee is 11th in the league, allowing 96.75 points per game and in the middle of the pack defending shots, holding opponents to 44 percent shooting.
Shot blocking has become the Bucks' specialty this season. Larry Sanders who is tied with Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka for the league lead with 3.0 per game. As a team, Milwaukee is second in the league with 7.54, just slightly behind the Thunder overall.
"Our defense is getting to an acceptable level," Skiles says. "It's getting better, there's no doubt about that. As long as we don't (take shortcuts), we're in pretty good shape. Then, of course, we have really good rim protection. We just have to make sure that when we're ahead, or playing behind, we're playing the same way."
As the defense has become more consistent, the offense has often struggled. Milwaukee is 21st in the league with 95.46 points per game and 25th from the field, connecting at a 43 percent clip. The 3-pointer was supposed to be a strong suit for the Bucks this season, but even with sharp-shooters like Dunleavy, Ersan Ilyasova, Brandon Jennings and Ellis, Milwaukee is near the bottom of the league with a 32.5 percent average.
They showed signs of life Wednesday, shooting 47.6 percent from the field and going 10 for 17 from behind the arc. In his last three games, Ellis is averaging 28 points and five assists while shooting 50 percent (31 of 62) from the field. He was the lone bright spot in Milwaukee's 94-82 loss to Cleveland last weekend, scoring a season high 37 points.
During that same stretch, Jennings is averaging 14.6 points - slightly below his season average of 17.6 - but when his shot hasn't been falling, he's found other ways to contribute, as when he dished out eight assists the case in a 99-94 victory at Boston on Dec. 12.
The pressure on that duo will be lessened slightly as Beno Udrih returned to the court Wednesday after missing 12 games with a sprained ankle. Before the injury, Udrih was a key weapon off the bench, averaging 8.3 points in 18 minutes.
"We've been a little bit thin back there," Skiles says. "We're getting healthy again and may be in a situation where they don't have to play 40 minutes. Hopefully that will be the case."
For the Bucks to make a move, they can start by protecting their home court, where Milwaukee is just 8-6 this season. It's not a new problem: The Bucks were just 22-19 at home during the 2010-11 season and 17-16 during the lockout-shortened campaign a year ago.
By contrast, the Bucks were 28-13 in Milwaukee during the 2009-10 season, when a late surge earned them the sixth seed in the playoffs.
"We have to win that game," Skiles says. "We can't keep letting that happen, especially at home. We have to be much better at home."
Five of the Bucks' next eight games are at home, but it starts with a bang: The defending NBA champion Miami Heat visit on Saturday.