It was déjà vu all over again for the Milwaukee Bucks in taking on one of the league’s worst teams in the Orlando Magic on Tuesday night at the Amway Center in Orlando. The Bucks beat the Magic, 127-110, but it proved to be far more difficult than it should have been.
The Bucks had a 29-point lead early in the third quarter, but they saw the Magic trim that down to as few as eight about halfway through the fourth quarter and nine in the final four minutes before the trio of Jrue Holiday (18 points, 10 assists), Khris Middleton (21 points) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (28 points) put an end to the threat.
The Bucks’ Big Three combined for eight points to stretch a 113-104 lead to 121-106 with under two minutes left.
“Playing aggressively," Middleton said of the Bucks' key to victory. "That first half, the whole half we were aggressive. Bobby (Portis) was hot from three and then late in the fourth quarter (Jrue) was aggressive, put his head down and made forceful moves and opened the game back up for us. I think that’s the key, is keeping it on them the whole game.”
Box score: Bucks 127, Magic 110
It was awfully similar to a game the teams played on Nov. 20 at Fiserv Forum, when the Bucks saw a 29-point lead late in the third quarter dwindle down to five before Milwaukee won 117-108.
“I mean, they’re NBA players,” Holiday said of the Magic being able to cut into a large deficit. “They’re here for a reason. I mean, the record probably doesn’t show that but they have really good players on their team.
"Any time you go out there and step on the court you can’t really let up. I think in the third we kind of let up and they definitely got into a groove and got a rhythm and it was tough for us there to withstand that. Every time we play this team – they’re young and they’re gonna fight and they’re never going to give up so we definitely have to stay on point.”
Tuesday night was the Bucks 10th consecutive regular season victory over the Magic (7-28). The teams conclude their regular season series Thursday night.
Milwaukee (23-13) also continued to roll when its Big Three are together, as the team improved to 15-2 with them on the court.
The Bucks won two games in Milwaukee on Nov. 20 and 22, but this was a much different Magic team from then. Magic head coach and Milwaukee native Jamahl Mosley had to work around 10 of his players being listed as out either through injury (six) or the health and safety protocol (four).
Already one of the worst teams in the league, Orlando was without starters Cole Anthony (20 points per game), Jalen Suggs (12.3 points) and Mo Bamba (10.3 points, 8.6 rebounds). Sixth-man Terrence Ross (11.0 ppg) was also out.
The Bucks, on the other hand, came in rolling – but not just because they had won three straight. Rather, head coach Mike Budenholzer’s squad has come out of its own prolonged spell of injury and illness to have a roster that is only missing center Brook Lopez.
In the first half the Magic had no answers for anyone or anything the Bucks had for them and game looked over as Bucks took a 72-49 lead into the break.
With 14 healthy bodies available, Budenholzer had 10 players play at least eight minutes of the first half and nearly everyone who had a hand in the offense produced. Milwaukee shot 56.5% (26 for 46) from the field, including 13 for 24 (54.2%) from behind the three-point line. The Bucks made eight of those threes in a 40-point second quarter.
Six different Bucks hit at least 1 three-pointer in the opening half, but the barrage was led by Bobby Portis and his 5-for-5 effort. He led all scorers with 17 points at the break. Middleton had 11 points and Pat Connaughton had 10.
“The ball movement, the playing together, the unselfishness really stood out,” Budenholzer said of the first half. “It felt like guys we were really making the right pass, making the right read and then shooting it well. Bobby Portis had an insane shooting half and generally speaking I think we were 54% at halftime. But I think the passing and the unselfishness and making the right play can lead to good shooting or help lead to good shooting.”
The Magic began the game with an 11-6 lead but after it tied the game at 13-13 with 6 minutes, 12 seconds left in the first quarter it was blown out of the water. Milwaukee outscored Orlando, 19-11, to end the opening period up 32-24.
Portis and George Hill then led the Bucks on a 17-2 run to open the second quarter, combining for 4 three-pointers in that stretch. An Antetokounmpo basket at the 8:59 mark capped the streak and put the Bucks up 49-26. Orlando would work the deficit down to 16, but the Bucks ended the half on a 14-4 run.
Franz Wagner led Orlando with 11 first half points.
Wagner was the catalyst for making it game in the second half, as the No. 8 overall pick in the draft scored 11 points in the first eight minutes of the third quarter (and 14 overall) and played strong defense to help the Magic try and make it a game. After an Antetokounmpo bucket made it 76-47 the Magic went on a 18-0 run that cut the lead to 76-66.
“I’ve got to do a better job of getting them in the right spots, getting them in better spots, maybe quicker to timeouts to try and help with an 18-0 run,” Budenholzer said. “Yeah, the offense wasn’t good there. Part of that is me. We’ve got to help them a little bit more. We just went dry and then they kind of caught fire off of it and they have an 18-0 run.”
Antetokounmpo then hit two free throws and assisted a Grayson Allen three-pointer to stem the tide and put Milwaukee back up 81-66. The lead yo-yoed from up to 18 and down to 13 before the Bucks took a 97-82 lead into the fourth quarter.
The Bucks needed nearly all of that 29-point lead as the Magic would cut it to within a few possessions late behind Wagner’s shooting and playmaking. He scored seven of nine Orlando points in the middle of the quarter to make it 106-98 before the Bucks’ Big Three stemmed the tide with seven straight points of their own. A Wagner three cut it to 115-106 before the closing surge from the Bucks’ stars.
“Just gotta be better, I guess,” Middleton said. “There was definitely a lapse in that second half when they went on that crazy run, just hitting threes, sloppy possessions and missed shots. Just gotta be better overall.”
Wagner scored 38 points on 12-of-20 shooting while pulling down seven rebounds and handing out three assists. Wendell Carter Jr. had 19 points and 10 rebounds for Orlando while Gary Harris had 13. All 11 available players for the Magic played.
After the hot start, Connaughton finished with 10 points and the bench shooting went cold for Milwaukee. Portis finish with 19 points and didn’t attempt another three-point shot. Allen finished with three points.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Bucks 127, Magic 110: A big lead nearly disappears before the Big Three close it out