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Bucks' road swing toughens with stops in Denver, Phoenix and Salt Lake City
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Bucks' road swing toughens with stops in Denver, Phoenix and Salt Lake City

Jrue Holiday shoots, AP generic file photo

Milwaukee's Jrue Holiday shoots against the Cavaliers on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021 in Cleveland. 

MILWAUKEE — A weekend miniseries sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers extended the Milwaukee Bucks' winning streak to a season-long four games and opened their season-long six-game trip on a high note.  

The momentum boost those two victories provided will be important because up next is a difficult stretch against quality opponents in venues that have been historically unkind to the Bucks, regardless of how well they're playing.

It all starts Monday night against the Denver Nuggets, who have won 12 of the past 14 meetings with the Bucks, including a sweep of the two-game season series a year ago. The Bucks haven't won consecutive games against the Nuggets since taking three in a row from 2009-10 and have lost 13 of their past 17 games in Denver, where they are 10-43 since the Nuggets joined the league in 1976.

In Phoenix, the Bucks are 28-45 against their expansion cousins and had lost 24 straight road games to the Suns before a 98-94 victory on Jan. 17, 2013. Since then, the Bucks are 4-3 in the Valley of the Sun but have dropped three of the past four meetings.

Next on the Western swing is Salt Lake City, where the Bucks are 17-34 against the Jazz and haven't won there since 2001 when Ray Allen scored 32 points and Glenn Robinson added 28 in a 119-112 victory. Milwaukee has lost 18 in a row at Utah and 27 of the past 36 meetings with the Jazz overall.

The Bucks have had better luck in Oklahoma City, going 5-6 there since the SuperSonics relocated from Seattle in 2008, and swept the season series with the Thunder last season, including a 121-119 victory in Oklahoma City on Nov. 10.

At 10-12, the Thunder is the only team during this stretch that currently has a sub-.500 record. Denver (12-10) sits sixth in the Western Conference while the resurgent Suns are fourth with a 13-9 mark, five games back of a Utah team that leads the NBA at 19-5.

Venues and history aside, the Bucks are heading into the trip playing their best basketball of the season and looking much more like the powerhouse they were over the past two seasons than the team that was still feeling itself out through the first few weeks of this season.

Here are three reasons why:

Coming in hot

During their winning streak, the Bucks are averaging 127.8 points while holding opponents to 105 points. At 118.6 points per game, Milwaukee leads the NBA in scoring.

The Bucks' defense is looking much more like the lockdown unit it has been over the past two years, as well. Milwaukee's 101.2 defensive rating over the past four games is the league's best during that stretch and at 108.9, the Bucks rank eighth for the season.

Their 105.2 points allowed during the winning streak are the second-fewest allowed in the NBA and the Bucks are third during that stretch by holding opponents to 43% shooting.

Holiday's impact

It didn't take very long for Jrue Holiday to show he was as good as advertised when the Bucks acquired him in a blockbuster trade with the New Orleans Pelicans. But over the past few games, he's exceeded expectations.

With 20 points against the Cavs on Saturday night, Holiday has hit the 20-point mark nine times, with four of those coming over his past six games. During Milwaukee's winning streak, he's averaging 17.5 points on 67% shooting while hitting 55% of his 3-point attempts with 6.0 assists and 2.3 steals per game.

“He just gives us a ton of confidence,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “That’s one of the words we’ve used a lot recently when we talk about Jrue.”

Portis pacing bench

Though not nearly as heralded as Holiday, the acquisition of Bobby Portis has paid off handsomely.

Signed to a two-year, $7.5 million contract, the Bucks hoped the veteran guard would provide scoring, but also some physical toughness to their second unit.

He provided a much-needed boost Friday night when the Bucks, following travel problems that kept them from reaching Cleveland until a few hours before tipoff, started slowly and missed seven straight 3-point attempts while committing four turnovers.

Portis quickly turned things around, scoring eight points over a two-minute stretch to open the second quarter, and he finished with 14 points and six rebounds in Milwaukee's 123-105 victory.

"We need that production from him," Budenholzer said.

Portis has reached double figures in scoring 15 times and surpassed 20 points three times. He ranks sixth in the league in 3-point shooting (47.9%).

Through 21 games, he's averaging 11.2 points on 54.5% shooting with 7.5 rebounds, all increases from last season when he averaged 10.1 points on 45% shooting with 5.1 rebounds. His four double-doubles are one short of the five he recorded in 66 games last season.

"I’ve kind of found a niche of coming in and bringing energy off the bench,” Portis said. “Coming in and being that spark plug that the team needs. Going out there, just playing as hard as I can and taking the shots that are given to me and being aggressive with it. I think I’ve done a good job of that.”

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Not only are the Bucks going up against the hottest team in the NBA — the Jazz have won 16 of 17 and have the league's best record at 20-5 — they’re doing so without their best defender and in a venue that has been historically frustrating.

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