Capitals

Bucks in thick of Central race for now

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Bucks in thick of Central race for now

MILWAUKEE (AP) 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 entering Thursday night's games. 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 - 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.

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Vitek Vanecek will play in NHL's round robin, but Capitals' Stanley Cup hopes rest with Braden Holtby

Vitek Vanecek will play in NHL's round robin, but Capitals' Stanley Cup hopes rest with Braden Holtby

Brought up to replace the injured Ilya Samsonov, Vitek Vanecek's first taste of NHL hockey will come inside the bubble in Toronto. Not exactly the best of circumstances. 

But Vanecek plays an important role on a Capitals team with Stanley Cup aspirations. Should Braden Holtby struggle or get hurt during the playoffs, Washington will need its young back-up goalie to keep their team afloat and let his talented skaters take it from there.

That's why NBC Sports Washington analyst Alan May, during an appearance with The Sports Junkies Tuesday, looks forward to seeing Vanecek play a little bit in the round-robin portion of the NHL restart. Ideally, though, it stops there.

"[Vanecek] probably will get one of these games, [the Capitals] said that from the start," May said. "But I hope he doesn't play once they get to the playoff rounds. I think it would be wise to play him in [round robin] games, it's not the end of the world what the seeding is in this. He's a good size goaltender, I think he's about 6'2, and with the training that he's had, he's worked on the fundamentals of his game, he's gotten his conditioning up. He looks very similar to Holtby in net, He's gotten a lot of good reps in American Hockey [League] just like Holtby did around the same age."

And what's the reason why no Caps fan should want to see Vanecek in the postseason? It's simple really. Because this team's best chance at another title revolves around Holtby being a steady and stifling presence between the pipes throughout the playoffs. 

RELATED: PHYSICALITY THE KEY FOR CAPITALS IN PLAYOFFS

"I think the big thing with this is you really don't want to see [Vanecek] in the net after the round robin," he said. "If they're going to win this thing, it's gonna have to be Braden Holtby getting 16 wins. To me, the most important thing is that Holtby plays in the playoffs, the guy's dynamite, no leaky goals out of him."

This could be Holtby's last playoff run with the Capitals as he enters a contract year. The Caps already committed long term money to Nicklas Backstrom this season, they have an Alex Ovechkin extension to worry about and the flat salary cap certainly won't do them any favors either. Not to mention the presence of Samsonov after a stellar rookie season. 

So if this is it, if this is Holtby's last dance in Washington, he at least looks ready to play his best hockey when it matters most.  

"He looks focused and dialed in, and he wants to make sure if he's going out and won't be a Capital anymore he wants to go home with a victory in his last game."

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With the way Alex Smith has looked so far, Ron Rivera 'can envision' him being in the quarterback mix

With the way Alex Smith has looked so far, Ron Rivera 'can envision' him being in the quarterback mix

Positive reports about Alex Smith's early training camp performance came out over the weekend, and on a Tuesday morning Zoom call with the media, Ron Rivera echoed those reviews.

"He's looked good, he really has," the head coach said. "I'll be honest, I was pleasantly surprised to see how far along he is. It's been exciting to watch his progression."

According to Rivera, Smith has been working off to the side with Washington Football Team trainers at the Ashburn facility and is mirroring what Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen are doing, too. Coordinator Scott Turner and QBs coach Ken Zampese are apparently involving Smith as much as they can, and Smith is looking "very fluid" so far.

"It's a tribute to who he is, it's a tribute to his trainers and his doctors who have helped him get where he is today," Rivera said.

That all, of course, is wildly encouraging. The fact that the 36-year-old is in a place where he can check off those boxes and do those activities is astounding. That can't be pointed out enough, either.

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Yet it's also fair to note just how different mimicking a starting signal caller and actually serving as the starting signal caller are. So, is there any real chance of Smith transitioning from that first phase to the second before the season? 

With what he's seen from the veteran so far, Rivera certainly believes there is.

"I can envision it," he said. "The big thing is if he can do the things that we need him to do, that he needs to do to help himself on the football field, he'll be part of the conversation most definitely. He did some really good things last week. He went through all four workout days, had no residual effect the next morning, which is always important because the next day usually tells.

"We'll see how he is this week and we'll go from there."

As Smith continues to rehab and try to make his way off PUP, the challenges are solely physical. Rivera is not worried at all about the veteran having to adjust to a new scheme or dealing with any other mental task; instead, the primary concern is ensuring that Smith can handle the contact that'll come if he makes it back into live action.

"I believe he already knows probably 75-percent of our playbook," Rivera said. "So for him, it's really just a matter of can he do the movements he needs to do? Can he protect himself when he's on the field?"

It feels like every time Smith is brought up, he's taken another step. The next one, however — going from the PUP list to the huddle — is particularly daunting.

But at this point, it's gotten pretty difficult to imagine anything being particularly daunting for Alex Smith. So don't be that floored if he makes it happen. Rivera clearly won't be. 

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