ST. FRANCIS, Wis. Since Milwaukee Bucks coach Scott Skiles arrived in Milwaukee three-plus seasons ago, he has said that if his team's offense can consistently score in the mid- to upper 90s, his team will be in good shape.
This assumes, of course, that Skiles' perennially stifling defense is playing up to its usual standards.
Unfortunately for the Bucks, that hasn't been the case this season. Milwaukee is allowing 97.1 points per game, which ranks 23rd in the NBA. Opponents are shooting 45.0 percent from the field and 35.3 percent from on 3-pointers, the 18th- and 19th-best marks in the league, respectively.
It's a steep drop-off for a team that had risen from 16th to seventh to third in points allowed during Skiles' first three seasons with Milwaukee, and it's not hard to identify the main problem: 7-footer Andrew Bogut, who led the NBA in blocked shots per game last season, has played in only 12 games and is out until at least April with a fractured ankle. That said, Skiles seems more willing to accept a drop-off in offense with Bogut out than a dip in his trademark defense.
"Statistically, and every other way, (we're) a middle-of-the-road defensive team," Skiles said. "In the situation we're in, without (Bogut), we can't afford to be a middle-of-the-road defensive team. We need to be an upper-level defensive team."
The Bucks are tied for 13th in scoring (95.5 points per game) and are 21st in field-goal percentage (43.0 percent). In the past five games, Milwaukee is second in the league with 102.0 points per game but is allowing 106.2 per game, the second-highest mark in the league.
"It's not as sharp as we need to be," Skiles said. "Especially against the really good clubs, you're only as good as your weakest link out there. If you've only got one guy out of position, the ball will move, the other team will exploit it and they're going to score.
"The good defensive teams, all five guys are involved on every single possession. Nobody is resting, they're active, they're all over the place and they're putting tremendous pressure on the offense."
A year ago, when the Bucks stumbled to a 35-47 record and missed the playoffs, the team's No. 3 defensive ranking was generated by allowing just 92.7 points per game. The problems, though, came on the offensive end, where the Bucks finished last in the league in points per game (91.9) and shooting (43.0 percent).
To Skiles, a good defense makes for an improved offense.
"We feel like even though our field-goal percentage isn't what we'd like it to be, we're scoring enough points we'd like to score a little bit more and we can do some things to work on our efficiency on that end but one way to get more efficient on the offensive end is to get more stops, get up the floor quickly and get some easier baskets," Skiles said.
Skiles has seen flashes of good defensive effort but not enough consistency from game to game or even quarter to quarter. Some of that he attributes to a lack of regular practice time due the condensed 66-game schedule this season.
The Bucks will get some much-needed time on the practice court over the next two weeks as the NBA wraps up the first half of what's already been a bit of a crazy season. The problems Skiles sees are correctable but will take a concerted effort from everyone on the roster.
"If you keep working on it and the guys will commit to it, anybody can play defense," he said. "Anybody with any sort of will can play within a scheme and a team can play well defensively. There aren't always great individual defenders because the guys aren't so gifted defensively. If a guy buys into it, they can play in the system."
So can the Bucks buy into Skiles' system? That's the question moving forward and one Skiles himself doesn't have the answer to as he team tries to make up the game separating it and the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
"We'll see," Skiles said. "We've got the break coming up. We've got some days coming up here before the break where we can tune ourselves up during practice and hopefully carry it over into a game and see progress. Hopefully we can pull that off."
Follow Andrew Wagner on Twitter.