MILWAUKEE (AP) Somewhere at the bottom of a pile of giddy Milwaukee Bucks on the floor of the Bradley Center, Khris Middleton laughed and smiled with his teammates.
A game-winning, buzzer-beater shot against a team jockeying for playoff positioning can do wonders for the confidence of a struggling young squad.
Overall, the rebuilding process is ahead of schedule in Milwaukee, where the Bucks are hoping to make the postseason a year after winning just 15 games. But after a strong first three months to this season, the Bucks have struggled over the last month with the roster altered by injuries and a trade deadline deal.
Middleton's 3 for an 89-88 win over Miami on Tuesday night snapped a six-game losing streak and gave the Bucks a 2 1/2-game cushion over the Heat for the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race with 11 games left in the regular season.
''I don't know about the games back ... But I think we are more or less in the process of learning, right?'' coach Jason Kidd said. ''We're going to be a young team that plays everyone to one possession.''
The Bucks are 35-36 going into Thursday night's game against Indiana. Milwaukee is 5-13 since the All-Star break and a three-team trade that shipped guard Brandon Knight to Phoenix and brought in Michael Carter-Williams from Philadelphia.
Knight was a scorer who handled the ball. He took the key shots at crunch time.
Carter-Williams, last season's Rookie of the Year, is considered a better ball-handler. His 6-foot-6 frame fits the kind of roster the Bucks are trying to build with players who can disrupt opponents with length.
Kidd has stressed that the big picture to the Bucks' rebuilding plans. It hasn't made the team's recent struggles any easier to handle for some success-starved fans in town.
''We're here at the final stretch to get this team to the playoffs, which is our goal,'' veteran forward Jared Dudley said this week. ''I think it will be good for the city, good for the organization and get some of the guys experience to build next year.''
Milwaukee remains in the playoff chase despite dramatic roster turnover, including the departure of shot-blocking center Larry Sanders. He was waived after reaching a buyout agreement following the end of a suspension for violating the NBA's substance abuse policy.
Rookie Jabari Parker, the second overall pick in the draft, was lost for the season in December with a left knee injury. He is one of the Bucks' young building blocks along with Carter-Williams and second-year forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The 20-year-old Antetokounmpo is blossoming into one of the most promising young - and athletic - players in the league. He has become more assertive of the last few weeks, averaging 17.7 points and 8.3 rebounds in his last nine games.
''Any time you play more minutes, the more comfortable you get with your role,'' Kidd said. ''I think confidence comes with that, to see him be more assertive, but more understanding of what's in front of him, to read the play in circumstances of what's at stake at that time.''
Without Parker and Knight, Antetokounmpo and Middleton, a third-year shooting guard, are taking more of the key shots. Carter-Williams is Kidd's student at point guard.
Playoff basketball would provide quite the education.
''For us, it's very important not only to myself but our team, to get into the playoffs ... just to build on going into the new season,'' Dudley said. ''People like Giannis and Michael to experience the playoffs because it's a totally different level.''
Injuries to veterans Dudley and guard O.J. Mayo of late have sapped the Bucks of experience and weakened the bench. Mayo (hamstring) played six scoreless minutes in easing back into the rotation on Tuesday, while Dudley (back) hopes to be return either for the Indiana game or Saturday against Golden State.