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Aided by slumping Wizards, Bucks close on berth

MILWAUKEE (AP) -- The Milwaukee Bucks are almost in the playoffs,
and they can credit the Washington Wizards' slump as much as their
own performance.

Toni Kukoc scored 26 points to tie his season high, and the
Bucks defeated the Los Angeles Clippers 112-92 Wednesday night.
Combined with Washington's loss to the Celtics, Milwaukee can
clinch a playoff berth with one more victory or a loss by the
Wizards.

The Bucks are only 12-13 since Gary Payton and Desmond Mason
joined the team after being traded from Seattle in February for Ray
Allen. Fortunately for Milwaukee, Michael Jordan was unable to
carry his team to the playoffs: The Wizards went just 11-14 over
their last 25 games.

Kukoc led the way Wednesday night, playing a terrific all-around
game. He said he benefited from sitting out Saturday's game with a
sore foot.

"I really felt good. I had a lot of energy,'' he said. "I
think we're on the right track right now.''

Coach George Karl lauded Kukoc's production, which included
10-of-15 shooting from the field, 6-of-6 free throws, seven
rebounds, eight assists and three blocks.

"Kukoc was fantastic,'' Karl said. "It was probably one of the
best games I've seen him play. He's good at both ends of the court
and did a good job running, passing and blocking shots tonight.''

Sam Cassell added 22 points for the Bucks, while Payton had 21,
Tim Thomas 16 and Mason 15 for Milwaukee. Thomas also matched his
season high with 10 rebounds.

Elton Brand scored 21 points and Corey Maggette had 20 to lead
the Clippers, who trailed by 21 at halftime and couldn't get closer
than 13 in the second half.

"We didn't do anything out on the court,'' coach Dennis Johnson
said.

Johnson did have plenty of praise for Payton and Cassell,
though.

"I know the talk was when (Payton) got here, he and Cassell
wouldn't mesh,'' Johnson said. "Either can play either position. I
didn't think the trade would be a problem for them, and it appears
it isn't.''

The Clippers led the game 12-3 before an 11-0 run helped the
Bucks take a 28-21 lead after one quarter. Cassell and Kukoc scored
16 points each and Payton added 12 in the first half as the Bucks
took a 62-41 halftime lead. Los Angeles scored the first six points
of the second quarter to get within 10, but Milwaukee finished the
half with a 15-4 run.

"Milwaukee is on a playoff run,'' Brand said. "They saw it
slipping away in the beginning, and they turned it up. They got
hot, and we started to miss.''

Game notes
Milwaukee forwards Anthony Mason (left thigh) and Jason
Caffey (back) did not dress for the fifth straight game. ... The
Clippers are 5-19 since beating the Bucks 110-104 on Feb. 19 in Los
Angeles. That was the night before the big trade between the Bucks
and SuperSonics. ... Cassell shot 7-of-9 in the first half,
including 6-of-6 in the second quarter.