Orlando Magic vs. Milwaukee Bucks: Game Preview

Terrence Ross
by Dan Savage

ORLANDO -- For an Orlando Magic team that’s attempting to recapture their defensive cohesion – an element that’s been tested by trades, injuries, and ever-changing rotations – a looming challenge is waiting on the horizon.

The Magic (17-35) will need to be locked into their defensive principles if they want to have any hope of slowing down the Milwaukee Bucks (32-20), who possess the league’s most explosive offense, for Sunday’s showdown at Amway Center at 7 p.m. ET.

After showing initial promise on that end of the floor following a flurry of deadline deals, Orlando has struggled defensively over the past four games, allowing an average of 124.5 points per contest. Limiting Milwaukee will be no easy task as the Bucks currently sit atop the association, firing off an average of 118.9 points per game.

“We just have to get re-connected on the defensive end, and that’s what we tried to do today (in shootaround),” Magic shooting guard Dwayne Bacon explained.

Part of that equation will certainly be time. Rookie Cole Anthony has played in just two contests since returning from a 25-game absence, and Gary Harris made his Magic debut on Friday, after missing 30 of his last 31 games. Wendell Carter Jr. and rookie R.J. Hampton are adjusting to playing more significant minutes with their new squad, while also attempting to master Orlando’s defensive schemes.

“Having the new guys learn our tendencies and learn our principles, because we do a (few) little things different,” said Magic super sixth man Terrence Ross. “Our side pick-and-roll is a little bit different than most teams. Our coverages are a little different when it comes to the way we blitz and trap, so it can take a little longer for guys to snap out of old habits, but for the most part they’re picking it up. For us, defensive chemistry is a big thing, and we have to do a little better job of coming together on that.”

KEY STAT: Since stepping into a bigger role after the trade deadline, Mo Bamba has made the most of his minutes. The 7-foot center has scored in double figures seven times in Orlando’s eight games since that day, including posting a career-high 19 points against the Wizards on Wednesday.

Now, he’s focused on continuing to improve his defensive timing and becoming an anchor on defense for the Magic.

“If I build that chemistry with my teammates to the point where they know I’m going to be that last line of defense, I think that will put their minds at ease whenever they get beat or whatever,” Bamba said.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “Chuma (Okeke) is a guy that barely talks. He barely talks, but he works extremely hard. (He’s) always in here early, always getting shots up, always trying to learn just how to be the best (version of) him. If you’ve got that, you’re going to always grow, you’re going to always get better. A guy that rarely talks but takes so much in is always one of those guys. He’s like one of those guys that rarely talks, but when he does, it’s a funny moment trying to brighten up everybody’s day. On the court, he works so hard, and he does what he’s supposed to do. I’m really not surprised (at his success).” – Bacon on Okeke.

INJURY UPDATE: For Orlando, Bamba (left hip contusion), Karim Mane (sore right hamstring), and Okeke (sore right hip) are questionable, while Markelle Fultz (torn ACL, left knee), Jonathan Isaac (left knee rehabilitation), and Otto Porter Jr. (left foot pain) are out.

For Milwaukee, Donte DiVincenzo (right hip contusion), Jrue Holiday (left knee contusion), Brook Lopez (back soreness), and Khris Middleton (right knee soreness) are probable, Giannis Antetokounmpo (left knee soreness) is doubtful, and P.J. Tucker (left calf strain) is out.

RIVALS REPORT: In this edition of our Rivals Report series, I brought in special guest, Jim Owczarski, an award-winning journalist covering the Bucks for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and jsonline.com. Prior to that, he was the publication’s beat writer for the Green Bay Packers. However, my ties to Jim go back even further to when he covered the Cincinnati Bengals and was the co-host of one of my favorite podcasts at the time, the Bengals Beat Podcast. He was kind enough to take the time to answer a few key questions about the Bucks:

Savage: “Jrue Holiday was recently named Eastern Conference Player of the Week. How has he stepped up for the Bucks with Giannis out and what are you seeing out of him currently?”

Owczarski: “He earned the award largely with Giannis Antetokounmpo beginning to miss games with the knee injury. And when Giannis has been out, Jrue has said he’s felt a little more of a responsibility to score more, and also to fill Giannis’ role in games as a paint occupier. Get into the paint, draw defenses, facilitate from there. So, it’s not just putting up threes. He’s put some thought into how to fill that role. On a broader level, part of that award, also, is a better fit and understanding of what the team wants him to do. He hasn’t quite said he’s all the way back from his bout with COVID-19 in terms of how it’s affected his lungs, but he has found a better space with his teammates. They want him to be aggressive. They want him to look for his shot more. And he said, it took time for him to feel that he could do that, or he should do that. I think that last week was maybe a sweet spot of all those things coming together.”

Savage: “The Bucks traded away former Magic point guard D.J. Augustin as part of a deal to acquire P.J. Tucker. I know he’s out with an injury tonight, but how is that progressing and what was the Bucks’ thought process in terms of adding him and what he can bring to the table?”

Owczarski: “The injury first. It’s a calf strain suffered way back at the end of March in only his second game, and he’s been out since. While (Bucks Head Coach) Mike Budenholzer won’t put a timeline on it, before the Charlotte game, he hinted that his absence will continue to be protracted. So, he hasn’t really offered much in the way of court time. What they hope, when he is back, is that it gives them the ability to go small in the postseason with Giannis being the five, if you will. It will also give them the ability to switch more often, perhaps more effectively with Tucker’s ability to guard bigger players and with Jrue Holiday’s ability to guard bigger players, and to a degree, Giannis’ ability to guard smaller players. He’s not just sort of the extra guy on the floor offensively. They feel with Giannis’ gravity, Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, that corner three that P.J. Tucker has become relatively famous for will be open for him in such scenarios there. Even if he won’t be as used to the way the Bucks move offensively, filling the dunkers spot or their constant motion, if it ends up being that Tucker is just comfortable in corners, they feel all those other players can help open that up for him.”

Savage: “What do you feel the Bucks need to iron out over the course of the remainder of the regular season to set themselves up for a deep playoff run?”

Owczarski: “First and foremost, they need to make sure that Giannis’ left knee is healthy to the point where he can play twenty-eight games and let’s say thirty-five to forty minutes (per game) and make that championship run. That’s the first thing they have to make sure is right. Then, on the court, it’s probably – again, it’s related to health – getting P.J. Tucker out there where they can get some form of cohesion and chemistry on the defensive end with that group or even, frankly, when P.J. Tucker is paired with Brook Lopez. This is kind of granular, but both players are very vocal. Both players tend to be the ones who call out assignments and call out things they see. Well, Donte DiVincenzo knows what Brook Lopez does and what mean he means, and what he says. Yes, they’re getting used to P.J. Tucker’s voice, but that’s just from the sideline or at practice. If you want that communication, especially on switching in crunch time, you kind of need to hear it when it’s happening. Beyond just health and getting them together, I think it is defense for them to be honest. They’re the top scoring offense in the league. Before Giannis got hurt, they even upped that production another two points (per game). So, it is about them finding the ability to string stops together. That’s one thing this team maybe hasn’t been as adept at as past years, Dan, is the ability to just lock it down. We saw signs of it, a home game against the Clippers that they won, the buzzer-beater in Memphis set up by a couple of stops at the end. They haven’t really just been able to lock it down when needed, so I would say that’s probably the thing they would say they need to have ironed out before they get to the meat of the Eastern Conference playoffs.”

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