MILWAUKEE (AP) — His dress shirt unbuttoned at the neck, Jason Kidd looks relaxed and calm on the sideline while coaching the Milwaukee Bucks.
At 22-22, the Bucks are enjoying success while sticking with their rebuilding blueprint during Kidd's first year in Milwaukee. Even the playoffs are a possibility now in the mediocre Eastern Conference.
"We wanted to be a team, and try to create the atmosphere of playing as a team, and we're probably a little ahead of schedule," Kidd said when asked if the team's first-half performance had met his expectations.
Expectations outside of Milwaukee were understandably low then.
Hired by the team's new owners over the summer, Kidd was charged with turning around a team with a franchise-worst 15 wins in 2013-4. The building blocks would be a pair of young forwards in Jabari Parker, the second overall pick in this year's draft; and 6-foot-11 Giannis Antetokounmpo, a freakishly athletic but raw first-round pick the previous season.
Milwaukee started a surprising 12-12 before Parker was lost for the year on Dec. 15 after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Less than two weeks later, rim-protecting center Larry Sanders left the team for what was first described as the flu, and then personal reasons. He was suspended on Jan. 16 for a minimum of 10 games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
They were the kinds of blows that long-suffering Bucks fans have come to expect. Glimmers of hope again overshadowed by dubious developments.
The Bucks, though, have kept winning.
They ended up winning the game in which they lost Parker, beating the Suns 96-94 on the road. They are 10-10 since then headed into Tuesday's game at Miami, two games up on the Heat for the sixth seed in the East.
Milwaukee plays hard from the opening tip, even if they have trouble closing games out. Players love the offensive philosophy installed by Kidd in which everyone gets a chance to touch the ball.
The team had a season-high 33 assists on 41 buckets in a 101-86 win on Saturday over Detroit.
"We watched film and paid attention to the little details to help us get better. That's all we can ask for as a young team, to get better," guard O.J. Mayo said. "We kind of feel like we're on a high horse because we're in playoff position now, but it's half of the season."
Kidd has put a premium on defense: The Bucks are giving up 92.7 points per game in their last 20 games, nearly five points less than their season average.
"You go back through and see how many teams as young as they are have been great defensive teams — it's usually not the case because there's so much to learn," Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said. "But they're athletic and he's got them playing very hard. They're one of the best defensive teams in our league."
Kidd said he had a good idea of what kind of fight his club would have after allowing a 24-point lead in the third quarter in Charlotte to evaporate in the season-opening, 108-106 loss in overtime. Milwaukee bounced back two days later with a 93-81 win over Philadelphia in the home opener.
Off the floor, Kidd has credited a changing culture within the franchise. Mayo spoke about the young team bonding on road trips.
There is optimism with the new ownership group, which is also trying to secure plans and funding for a new arena. Guard Kendall Marshall was lost for the season earlier this month with a right knee injury, but the frontcourt has been fortified with the return of jump-shooting forward Ersan Ilyasova from a broken nose and concussion.
"This last year obviously winning changes a whole lot of it," Mayo said. "Winning pretty much puts everyone on a positive mindset as well, but it's a camaraderie ... It's been great going to war with this group."
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