Rivers hasn't been what the doctor ordered yet and struggling Bucks have work to do down the stretch

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Doc Rivers’ arrival was supposed to ensure the Milwaukee Bucks would develop into one of the NBA’s most dangerous teams by the postseason.

But they sure haven't looked like contenders so far.

The Bucks will return from the All-Star break on Friday at Minnesota having gone 3-7 in Rivers’ first 10 games as coach after the team put together a 32-14 record beforehand. There have been questions whether this was a good move for Rivers, although two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo — arguably the most important voice when summarizing the situation — believes in his new coach.

“He’s coached a lot of successful teams in the past,” Antetokounmpo said during the All-Star break. “When you have that guy on your bench, you have to be able to bring your ‘A’ game.”

The Bucks have been failing in that effort.

Their last game before the break was an embarrassing 113-110 loss at Memphis, which was missing most of its top players due to injuries.

“You don’t want to lose games like this ever,” Rivers said after that game. “Does that change the way I think about the team? No, it doesn’t at all. I got a lot of confidence in this group, but we’re going to have to make changes as far as how we want to play every night and how we ease into the game.”

There are reasons for the Bucks to be optimistic.

Milwaukee’s record before and after Rivers' arrival doesn’t necessarily tell a complete story.

— Rivers took over just as the Bucks were entering the most challenging portion of their schedule.

— The Bucks haven’t had their entire preferred starting five available for any of their last eight games.

— The defense has improved.

Those factors and Rivers' experience — his 1,100 career regular-season coaching wins rank eighth in NBA history — make the Bucks believe they’ll eventually succeed with him leading the way. Rivers took over for Adrian Griffin, who was fired just 43 games into his first head coaching job.

But the Bucks haven't delivered in the short time Rivers has been on the bench.

After losing five of their first six games with Rivers, the Bucks won two straight, including a 112-95 victory over the reigning champion Denver Nuggets. But they followed that by losing 123-97 at home to a Miami Heat team missing Jimmy Butler and falling to Memphis’ skeleton crew.

The Bucks were 30-13 and second in the East when Griffin was fired. They’re now third in the East, 8 1/2 games behind the Boston Celtics and 2 1/2 games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Bucks' management and general manager Jon Horst have made their championship expectations apparent.

Milwaukee fired coach Mike Budenholzer after the Bucks’ stunning first-round playoff loss to Miami last year. The Bucks shook up their roster by adding seven-time all-NBA guard Damian Lillard. Then they fired Griffin midway through the season.

“It’s been a very, very, very hard season for everybody, not just for the players, for the coaching staff,” Antetokounmpo said. “With the changes, it’s been a hard season. But through it all, I think we can get it done.”

Rivers has made a positive impact in one aspect already.

Milwaukee ranks 12th in defensive rating over its last 10 games after being 21st under Griffin. The issues have come on offense. Milwaukee ranks fifth this season in offensive rating but is just 22nd over its last 10 games.

The Bucks should benefit from the eventual return of Khris Middleton, who has missed five straight games with a sprained ankle.

Milwaukee needs Lillard to build on the momentum he established last weekend in winning the 3-point shooting contest and getting named All-Star Game MVP. Lillard has shot 10 of 41 from 3-point range over his last five games.

“I think any time you have these types of experiences where you have adversity and things not flowing like you expect them to or like you would want it to, I think that’s the time that you’ve got to just show who you really are,” Lillard said. “You’ve got to keep doing what you do, keep believing.”

None of this comes as a surprise to Rivers.

He predicted when he took the job the Bucks might struggle initially, in part due to the schedule. Fourteen of the Bucks’ first 20 games under Rivers are away from home.

Rivers also knows these early problems will be forgotten if the Bucks have the playoff success that has eluded them since their 2021 title. It also would provide some personal redemption for Rivers, who has endured plenty of playoff struggles since coaching the Boston Celtics to the 2008 championship.

“We have proven we can win games,” Rivers said. “What I’m trying to create and see is if we can become the winner. It’s only one winner.”

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AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA