Seeking Fifth Straight Win, Magic Face Tough Test Against Red-Hot Bucks
MILWAUKEE – To lend some historical context to the record-shattering roll that the Milwaukee Bucks are on now one only needs to look at their last four games played compared to the four that the Orlando Magic have won consecutively in recent days.
Despite being without two key players, the Magic have started to play some of their best basketball of the season and have strung together four straight victories over Golden State, Washington, Phoenix and Cleveland by a combined 31 points.
While that winning spree is certainly grounds for the Magic (11-11) to be encouraged, it pales in comparison to what the steamrolling Bucks (20-3) have done both recently and all season. Not only has Milwaukee won 14 games in a row, it has captured the last four by a whopping 137 points – the second-largest point differential over a four-game, regular-season span in NBA history, according to ESPN Stats and Information. The Bucks have been so dominant that they led Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers by as much as 41 points on Friday before closing out a 28-point win.
Now, the hard-charging Bucks stand between the Magic and a fifth consecutive victory on Monday. They certainly will have their work cut out for them in trying to take down a Milwaukee team that has been so dominant that it is outscoring foes by an average of 13.6 points per game. Thus far, Milwaukee seems like a team without a flaw, ranking second in the NBA in offense (114 points scored per 100 possessions) and first in defense (101.1 points allowed per 100 possessions) and once again featuring the leading candidate to win the MVP in superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.
``We’ve got to show up ready to play,’’ said Magic power forward Jonathan Isaac, who will get the bulk of the responsibility in trying to guard Antetokounmpo. ``We’ve got to put into play what we worked on in practice (on Sunday) and come ready for a fight. A big part of it is showing up with the mentality to win the game.’’
Orlando got a rather bitter taste of Milwaukee’s dominance early in the season when the Bucks stormed to a 123-91 victory at the Amway Center on Nov. 1. In that game, the Magic made eight of their first nine shots and actually led by as much as 13 points in the early going. However, the game turned around dramatically thanks to Milwaukee’s shooting and the Bucks led by as much as 23 in the second quarter and by 34 in a runaway second half. Orlando was outscored 36-2 in fast break points, 54-32 in the paint and 51-36 at the 3-point line.
``You don’t want to lose by 40, for sure, but they are obviously they are one of the best teams in the league,’’ said shooting guard Evan Fournier, who leads the Magic in scoring on the season at 19.7 points per game. ``They’re No. 1 in the East right now, they have the MVP and they’re playing terrific – what else can you say? We’ve got to bring our A-game.’’
The Magic are a much-improved offensive team since that forgettable night, while mostly maintaining their reputation as a defensively stout squad. Orlando will once again be without all-star center Nikola Vucevic (right ankle sprain) and key reserve Al-Farouq Aminu (meniscus tear in right knee) for Monday’s 8 p.m. ET tipoff, but its offense has adapted quite nicely of late. During its four-game winning streak, the Magic have had the NBA’s ninth-rated offense (113.7 points per 100 possessions) and the league’s 12th-best defense (106.6 points allowed per 100 possessions).
Orlando battered Washington and Phoenix for 127 and 128 points on consecutive nights – just the third time in the 31-year history that it scored at least 125 points in consecutive games. Two nights later, the Magic adapted to a poor shooting night by flexing their considerable defensive muscles in a 93-87 defeat of Cleveland.
While he’s pleased that his team’s offense has made strides of late, Magic head coach Steve Clifford is still waiting for the squad to put a complete game together. After all, that’s what it might take for the Magic to topple a balanced team like the Bucks.
``When we (made a playoff push) last year, over the last 34 games of the year, we were first in defense and 14th in offense – that’s balanced,’’ Clifford said. ``We haven’t been anywhere near that all year. Even in this last (four-game) stretch here, we’ve either outscored people or our defense has been great, and our offense has been poor. We aren’t putting balanced games together.
``We’re competing hard, and we’re getting better on offense,’’ Clifford added, ``but it’s not a recipe for sustained winning in our league. You’ve got to be able to play well on offense and defense.’’
In Friday’s game in Cleveland, Orlando swatted nine shots – four of them coming from Isaac. That performance allowed the nearly 7-foot power forward to move to the top of the NBA in shot blocking at 2.75 swats a game – just ahead of Lakers’ power forward Anthony Davis (2.73) prior to Sunday night’s action.
Isaac, who leads the Magic in several major defensive categories, will be the primary defensive option on Monday against Antetokounmpo, who is averaging 30.8 points, 13.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks a game. Not only is he shooting 56.4 percent overall from the floor, he’s improved his outside shot to the point that he’s made 36 3-point attempts.
When Milwaukee won in Orlando on Nov. 1, Antetokounmpo was limited to just nine first-half points. However, he still managed to compile 29 points, 14 rebounds and six assists when the Magic tried taking away Milwaukee’s outside shooting.
``It’s tough because he’s a strong player, he’s quick and he’s long and you’ve got to stay in front of him,’’ Isaac said. ``He has different moves at the basket to get fouled and finish. With how long he is, he does everything, so it’s a challenge.’’
The ``Greek Freak’’ is just a part of a dynamic Milwaukee offense that ranks first in the league in scoring (121 points per game), first in rebounding (51.8), second in field goal percentage (48.3 percent) and fifth in 3-point makes per game (14.1).
``What makes it hard really is not just because they are five (players) out (on the perimeter), but Giannis drives so much and he’s so good at driving that you’re going to have to help, and that’s where they’re so hard to guard,’’ Fournier said. ``Brook Lopez, who is arguably their best shooter, is the center. You have to make a choice, but the whole team has to be involved to play defense (against the Bucks).’’
Fournier said if the Magic want to beat the Bucks, they will have to play more like them on Monday.
``That’s got to be a balanced game if we want to win,’’ the guard stressed. ``(The Bucks are) first in defense and second in offense. So, if we want to beat them, it’s got to be (a focus) on both ends of the floor.’’
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