The Milwaukee Bucks secured their 15th straight win by beating the visiting Orlando Magic 110-101 at Fiserv Forum on Monday night.
Milwaukee's reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo led all scorers and posted his 22nd double-double this season. But the Magic put up a fight, down only seven entering the final quarter despite trailing by as many as 18 points.
Orlando hung around in the fourth quarter, coming as close as 107-101 with 50 seconds in regulation, but the Bucks were able to withstand each of the Magic's comeback efforts.
Orlando was without All-Star center Nikola Vucevic, who went down with an ankle injury on Nov. 20.
The Bucks improved to 21-3, furthering their lead atop the Eastern Conference.
The Magic, meanwhile, fell to 11-12. Orlando had won four games in a row entering the game to reach .500 for the first time since being 2-2 on Oct. 30.
MIL F Giannis Antetokounmpo: 32 points, 15 rebounds, 8 assists, 1 steal, 1 block
MIL F Khris Middleton: 20 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal
MIL G F Ersan Ilyasova: 11 points, 6 rebounds, 1 block
ORL G Evan Fournier: 26 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal
ORL G Terrence Ross: 23 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist
ORL F Aaron Gordon: 10 points, 14 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 1 block
Bucks Need Collective Effort to Keep Streak Alive
First of all, Antetokounmpo was in his usual bag against Orlando:
Now that that's out of the way, it should be noted that the Bucks' stars of the evening were the reserves—even after a rocky stretch in the third quarter.
Ilyasova, George Hill and Donte DiVincenzo combined for 33 points off the bench. That offset the Magic's 40 bench points. It became more important as the only starters to score in double digits were Antetokounmpo and Middleton, while Orlando had four starters do so.
At halftime, Ilyasova spoke to Fox Sports Wisconsin about the bench's importance:
Middleton admitted after the game that the Bucks were "a little rusty" but "found a way to fight through out and get the tough win." And that's what should scare the rest of the Eastern Conference the most.
Magic Fall Short in Toughest Challenge Without Nikola Vucevic
Orlando has played nine games now without Vucevic, who suffered an ankle injury on Nov. 20 against Toronto. The Magic's five wins in that span came against teams that had a collective 32-80 record entering Monday's action. Against those opponents, they looked like they could survive without their All-Star center.
Against Milwaukee, however, the Magic looked like a team missing its best player.
That's not to say the Magic didn't have their moments against the Eastern Conference-leading Bucks:
Those highlights were counteracted by center Mo Bamba leaving in the second quarter with a knee contusion and the team missing its first 11 three-pointers, finishing 10-of-31 from deep.
Orlando's offensive performance against the Bucks (38 percent from the field) contradicted what The Athletic's Josh Robbins laid out earlier Monday:
"The most surprising aspect of the Magic's play without Vucevic revolves around their once-faltering offense. In the team's 13 full games with Vucevic this season, Orlando averaged 103.6 points per 100 possessions, ranking 27th in the NBA in that category. In the eight games without him, Orlando has become more productive, averaging 106.6 points per 100 possessions, 20th in the league during that stretch."
More than anything else, that could be attributed to playing the NBA's top-rated defense in Milwaukee (101.1). The encouraging bit is that Orlando's defensive fervor made up for a shaky offensive outing. The Magic registered 10 blocks, five of which came from Jonathan Isaac, and held the Bucks to their lowest point total since the Atlanta Hawks held them to 111 on Nov. 27.
Additionally, Evan Fournier, the team's leading scorer this season at 19.7 points per game, still got his. The 27-year-old guard drained four of Orlando's 10 threes. Fournier made or assisted on two of the Magic's six third-quarter threes, which cut the Bucks' lead to 80-73 entering the final quarter. He also sunk a 27-footer with just over two minutes remaining in the fourth to make it 103-95.
However, the Bucks sprung back out to a double-digit lead seemingly every time the Magic closed in:
Roy Parry @osroyparry
The Magic have been within 6 points three times but can't get any closer. The Bucks have eased back out to an 11-point lead after Khris Middleton sinks a wide-open 3 from up top. It's Milwaukee's 14th 3 of the game. The Bucks have outscored the Magic 42-24 from the 3-point line.
Khris Middleton hit three key triples in the fourth quarter that each helped preserve the Bucks' lead. The dagger came with 30.3 seconds left. Middleton hit a 23-footer that pushed Milwaukee's lead back out to 110-101 after Orlando had yet again come within six points.
This can be summed up simply as a scheduled loss for the Magic, especially without Vucevic, and the rest of the week won't be any easier with the 21-3 Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night followed by the 15-7 Houston Rockets Friday.
Should the Magic also drop those contests, they can at least continue evaluating what they have without Vucevic so they can ultimately figure out exactly who they are when Vucevic returns.
The Bucks will go for their 16th consecutive win when the New Orleans Pelicans visit Wednesday night.
The Magic will try to get back to .500 when they host the Los Angeles Lakers Wednesday night.