By John Denton Feb. 10, 2018
ORLANDO – Usually as guarded with his game plan as any other NBA head coach, Frank Vogel had nothing to hide on Saturday when discussing how his team hoped to contain Milwaukee Bucks’ superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo some 100 minutes prior to tipoff.
Asked if there was a temptation to back off Antetokounmpo – a 29.1 percent shooter outside of 15 feet from the rim – Vogel deadpanned: ``There’s not a temptation. That’s pretty much the plan.’’
That plan worked to perfection most of the night as Orlando kept ``The Greek Freak’’ mostly bottled up and it stayed on top of Milwaukee for more than a half. However, when the Magic understandably paid too much attention to Antetokounmpo, other Milwaukee shooters – namely 40-year-old 3-point specialist Jason Terry, point guard Eric Bledsoe and forward Khris Middleton – found the cracks in the defense and ruined the night for Orlando.
Antetokounmpo scored 32 points, Middleton added 21 and Milwaukee shut down Orlando’s 3-point shooting in the second half for a 111-104 victory that ended the Magic’s winning streak at three games.
``They’re more than Giannis Antetokounmpo,’’ Vogel said afterward of the Bucks. ``Obviously, Terry’s stuff comes from drawing your attention to Giannis, but Eric and Middleton are big-time players.
``Giannis was too much for us, but I’ve got to take my hat off to how hard we’re playing and how hard we’re competing,’’ added Vogel, whose Magic might have won had they not gone one-of-14 from 3-point range in the second half. ``The spirit is pure and there’s a lot of development going on.’’
Orlando (18-37) was attempting to win four games in a row for the first time under Vogel in Orlando. The Magic last won four games in a row from Nov. 25 to Dec. 3, 2015 – a streak that actually spanned five straight victories.
The Magic made seven of their first 13 3-point shots on Saturday to lead by as much as nine points in the early going. However, they missed the next 14 attempts before Jonathon Simmons buried a three with 1:49 to play to get Orlando back within 102-100. The length of Milwaukee defenders Thon Maker (7-foot-1), Antetokounmpo (6-11) and Middleton (6-8) likely had something to do with those shooting woes.
``I feel like we missed some easy shots, but we also took some bad ones,’’ said reserve point guard Shelvin Mack, who made his first six shots in the game and finished with 19 points, 10 assists, four rebounds and two 3-pointers. ``(The Bucks) make it very difficult and they are probably one of the longest teams in the NBA. They’re in the gaps and then can still recover with one step. With Thon Maker and Giannis, there’s not another team like them in the NBA.’’
Orlando held Antetokounmpo – one of the NBA’s leading candidates to win the MVP award – to 13 points in the first half. However, after halftime the long-armed and long-legged forward got loose for 19 points on nine-of-14 shooting.
Also, the Magic had little success getting defensive stops down the stretch against Milwaukee (31-24). The Bucks, who improved to 8-2 since firing head coach Jason Kidd on Jan. 22, shot 52.4 percent from the floor and drilled nine of 25 3-point shots.
Terry came into the game just nine of 30 from 3-point range for the season, but he drilled three second-half 3-pointers and finished with 11 points in 14 minutes.
``We were right there all the way and felt like we could have pulled away at the end, but Jason Terry hit some big shots – something he’s been doing his whole career,’’ said Magic guard D.J. Augustin, who had 11 points and five assists in his second start following Orlando’s trading of Elfrid Payton on Thursday.
The loss ruined an otherwise spectacular night for Magic forward Mario Hezonja. The third-year forward, who drew the primary defensive responsibility on Antetokounmpo, scored 23 points by making eight of 16 shots. For the most part, Hezonja held his own against Antetokounmpo by repeatedly challenging him at the rim.
``Mario Hezonja had one of his best nights tonight,’’ Vogel raved. ``Defensively, he got scored on some, but he had some collisions at the rim that I’ve been begging him to do for two years now. So, he had a big growth night.’’
Milwaukee was playing a second game in as many nights after losing on Friday in Miami. Usually catching a team on the second night of a back-to-back is a good thing in the NBA, but it’s been bad luck for foes of the Bucks this season. Milwaukee is now 9-3 on the second night of back-to-backs, winning the last six such games.
Bledsoe scored 12 of his 18 points in the second half.
Orlando has played significantly better basketball since Jan. 12, going 6-5 in the 11 games before Saturday night. That stretch has included impressive defeats of Boston, Cleveland, Minnesota, Miami and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Evan Fournier finished with 20 points, but he had trouble finishing around the rim because of the size of Milwaukee’s starting five.
Orlando was playing a sixth straight game without standout forward Aaron Gordon because of a left hip flexor strain. Gordon went through parts of practice on Friday and Saturday and could potentially make his return by Monday.
Monday’s game will be in snowy Chicago for the Magic. The Bulls have beaten Orlando twice already this season. After that game, the Magic will be back at the Amway Center on Wednesday to face the Charlotte Hornets in the final game prior to the break for the NBA All-Star Game.
Up four at the half, the Magic went ice cold from the floor in the third quarter to lose the lead. When they made just six of 23 shots in the period, Milwaukee was able to grab a 78-74 lead that it took into the fourth period.
``We just couldn’t make a shot, but we were getting good looks. That happens and some nights you are hot and some nights you’re not,’’ said Augustin, who came into the game shooting 40.1 percent from 3-point but missed all four of his attempts on Saturday. ``That second half we couldn’t get anything to fall from three, but we kept playing and we made good decisions at the rim and we played good defense.’’
Orlando led 54-50 at the half, but that advantage could have been even larger had it not given the ball away far too many times in the first 24 minutes. The Magic committed 10 turnovers in the opening half, fueling the Milwaukee fast break and leading to 13 points off the miscues.
On a positive note with their passing, the Magic had assists on their first 10 baskets of the game. They set up their 18 first-half field goals with 14 assists – five of them coming from Augustin.
Orlando finished with 23 assists – a number that would have been significantly higher had it been able to make a few more 3-point shots in the second half. Despite Saturday’s loss, Vogel likes the trust his team is showing in having an extra-pass mentality.
``This is what my teams should look like and this is what I demand of them,’’ he said. ``This is the standard of how we want to play – whoever is in uniform. We’re going to play extra-pass basketball and build an extra-pass culture and the competitive spirit on the defensive end is going to be about fighting, getting loose balls and physicality. It takes time for this stuff to develop, but it looks pretty good right now because guys are competing at a high level.’’
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