HOUSTON -- The temptation with the Milwaukee Bucks is to confuse their ascent with their arrival, and every so often their inconsistent play offers a reminder of the difficulties of becoming an established contender.
With their 113-104 home loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday, the Bucks (20-20) dropped their second consecutive game and slipped to .500. Milwaukee had won in San Antonio six days earlier and followed that triumph with a convincing victory over the Miami Heat to move two games above .500 for the fifth time this season. The Bucks have yet to reach three games over .500.
Milwaukee has been buoyed by the All-Star play of point forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, the continued emergence of his frontcourt mate Jabari Parker, and the surprise development of rookie point guard Malcolm Brogdon. Yet whenever the Bucks take a step forward, they follow with one in reverse.
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"Understanding we haven't accomplished anything and we feel comfortable, and when we feel comfortable things tend to go south for us," Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. "We have to stay hungry. We have to keep fighting."
In facing the Rockets (32-12) on Wednesday at Toyota Center, the Bucks must address one of their glaring defensive weaknesses. Milwaukee ranks 23rd in 3-pointers allowed (10.4) and attempted (29.3) per game, a troublesome stat against Houston, which leads the NBA in both categories by a wide margin.
"At some point we've got to understand what the 3 means to us as a team if we want to win," Kidd said. "We can talk about it but if there's no effort in guarding it and understanding again it starts with effort. If we don't give it, we're going to give up a lot of 3s."
After suffering consecutive losses for the first time this season last week, Houston coach Mike D'Antoni acknowledged that adversity was sure to find his team at some point. The Rockets have enjoyed winning streaks of 10 and nine games, the latter despite the loss of center Clint Capela (leg).
On Tuesday night in Miami, Capela returned following a 15-game absence, yet the Rockets suffered their worst loss of the season, 109-103 to the lowly Heat.
Houston played without forward Ryan Anderson (flu) and Capela logged just nine minutes before watching the entire second half from the bench. Guard Eric Gordon didn't appear quite himself as he continues to work his way back from his two-game injury hiatus. Suddenly, Houston looks vulnerable.
The game in Miami represented the first of four during a five-day stretch for the Rockets. They are banged up when their schedule is most unforgiving, and after spending the first half of the season setting the league on fire, the Rockets are encountering their most challenging stretch of games yet.
After hosting the Bucks, Houston will welcome the Golden State Warriors on Friday before traveling to Memphis to face the Grizzlies, against whom the Rockets are 0-2 this season.
"These are dog days," D'Antoni said. "We're going to have to find some energy and see if we can sneak one out (against the Bucks)."