The Milwaukee Bucks' four-game winning streak against suspect competition has aided their quest for one of the Eastern Conference's final playoff berths, but facing tough opponents hasn't been their strong suit.
Enter the Oklahoma City Thunder, who visit the Bradley Center on Monday night tied atop the West.
Milwaukee (28-28) sits in ninth place in the East, one game behind deadlocked New York and Philadelphia with 10 games remaining.
The Bucks beat Portland 116-94 on Saturday for their fourth consecutive win - all against teams below .500.
Beno Udrih and Brandon Jennings each scored 21 points for Milwaukee, which outscored the Trail Blazers 62-31 in the second half. Jennings said coach Scott Skiles reminded the team of its dismal 9-24 record against teams above .500, saying it needed to take advantage of struggling Portland.
The Bucks are 19-4 against teams below .500.
"I think the problem with us is that we struggle with teams over .500," Jennings said. "Coach told us if we want to make the playoffs, this is where we have to make our stand."
The big lead allowed Skiles to give his starters a break in the fourth quarter.
"Anytime right now we can find a little rest is important," Skiles said. "We're getting down near the end here and there's no question fatigue is setting in for a lot of teams. Anytime we can get these guys some rest it's great."
Jennings said Milwaukee needs to carry over the solid effort with Oklahoma City (41-15) coming to town.
"For 48 minutes, we just have to go out there and give our all," Jennings said. "They're one of the top teams in the Western Conference, so it's going to be a tough one on Monday."
Each of the last three matchups have been close, with the Bucks winning two. Milwaukee won 103-97 in overtime Jan. 2, 2010, then fell 82-81 on Nov. 20, 2010.
Jennings scored a team-high 16 points in a 110-106 overtime road victory April 13, 2011, though both teams relied heavily on their benches in that regular-season finale.
Oklahoma City remained tied with San Antonio - winner of 11 straight - atop the West by snapping a season-high three-game skid. Those losses came against opponents that are a combined 46 games above .500, but the Thunder bounced back with a 91-75 win over lowly Toronto on Sunday.
Kevin Durant scored a game-high 23 points as the Thunder used a 24-0 second-half run to pull away.
"We talked about that yesterday - to finish strong in all quarters,' coach Scott Brooks said. "I didn't think we had a great finish in the second quarter but we did a good job in the second half. We look for that and we wanted to see some progress in that area and I thought the guys really locked in and focused on closing out the quarters.'
Russell Westbrook added 15 points on only 12 shots - well below his average of 19.5 attempts - as Oklahoma City improved to 12-5 against the East. Milwaukee will be the last team it faces from the opposing conference unless it makes a run to the NBA finals.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
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