Defense was key to win over Bucks
It took team effort to stymie Eastern Conference leaders
MILWAUKEE — Magic coach Steve Clifford said his team’s defensive effort was the key to a dominant 103-83 road win over the Bucks Saturday night.
It was a statement game for Orlando, taking down the first-place Eastern Conference team and playing well from nearly start to finish.
Clifford was particularly pleased with his team’s ability to close off the Bucks’ opportunities in the paint. Milwaukee scored 80 points in the paint against the Dallas Mavericks just 24 hours earlier. The Magic limited the Bucks to 46 Saturday, holding the team to a miserly 18 in the second half.
“I thought in the second half we did a lot better job just keeping the ball out of the paint,” Clifford said.
“They are so good at driving the ball into the paint, I think they had 28 points in the paint in the first half and I don’t know what they ended up with, but we were a lot better. Our defense in the second half was really good.”
Nikola Vucevic, so often charged with protecting against the Milwaukee attack in the restricted area, praised the group’s effort on the defensive end.
“The way for us to stay in games is with our defense,” said Vucevic, who chipped in 15 points and 17 rebounds in addition to his defensive work.
“We aren’t going to go out there and outscoring people every night. I thought we did a really good job protecting the paint but also getting out to the shooters and finishing off possessions by rebounding the ball.”
Vucevic acknowledged that the absence of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was out with a sore knee, was a major blow for Milwaukee, but he emphasized the wealth of talent still available on the Milwaukee roster.
“We talked about it, even with Giannis out, obviously he’s a big part of what they do and the main reason why they are so good, but they still have a very good team, some very good players,” Vucevic said.
“[Eric] Bledsoe is very good at driving, [Khris] Middleton, [Malcolm] Brogdon and with [Brook] Lopez spacing the floor, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy but we competed.”
Desperate to avoid a slow start, the Magic were unable to contain the Bucks early, conceding the first eight points, leading to Clifford calling the first timeout just 3:03 into the game.
The first three minutes provided the only moments of adversity for the Magic, who responded sharply and rattled off a 14-4 run, capped by a tough D.J. Augustin finish through contact in transition. Finishing the period strong, Orlando took a 20-19 lead entering the second quarter, with six different players registering a point.
When Aaron Gordon bullied his way to the basket for a tough and-one finish, the Magic extended their lead to six points and took the life out of the usually raucous Milwaukee crowd.
The Fiserv Forum remained quiet as the second quarter rolled on, with a Khem Birch dunk following up on a Wesley Iwundu miss giving the Magic a 34-26 lead with 7:29 left in the second quarter.
The red-hot Terrence Ross continued his recent stretch of strong play, fueling the Magic offense in the second period. Back-to-back long-range bombs within 26 seconds gave him 13 points at the 5:47 mark of the second quarter.
“He is so confident and in rhythm. He is a talented shot-maker who doesn’t need a lot of room,” Clifford said of Ross.
“He is better off the dribble than I realized. One, two dribbles, he doesn’t need a lot of space and he elevates over defenders. He has different ways to get shots that are good for him.”
Orlando carried a 59-49 lead into the second half, with its hot shooting in direct contrast to the Bucks, who at times struggled to hit the rim from beyond the arc. Ranked No. 19 in the NBA in 3-point shooting, the Magic went 7-of-11 through two quarters while Milwaukee struggled to a 3-of-17 mark.
Gordon opened the second half with a wide open dunk and, once again, the Magic were able to get subdue the usually hot Milwaukee, extending their lead to 67-56 with 6:58 left in the third.
The minutes that followed were not pretty viewing, with missed shots and turnovers on both sides of the floor. Milwaukee closed the gap to nine points and was threatening to surge back into the contest before back-to-back triples by Iwundu and Jonathan Isaac suddenly gave the Magic a game-high 15-point lead with 2:45 left in the third.
Isaac finished with 17 points on 3-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc, shaking some early hesitation to shoot with confidence when the Magic needed him most.
“It’s big. We need everybody to make shots and when he’s able to make them it opens up a lot for us. We want him to shoot the ball. He needs to shoot it with confidence when he’s open,” Vucevic said.
The Milwaukee Bucks’ Khris Middleton drives to the basket as he is guarded by the Magic’s Wesley Iwundu during the Magic’s win Saturday night in Milwaukee.