The NBA’s top-scoring team and one of the league’s top defensive squads meet Saturday when the Milwaukee Bucks host the Orlando Magic.
Milwaukee rebounded from a 121-109 Christmas Day loss, routing the Atlanta Hawks on Friday 112-86 despite playing without Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Khris Middleton carried the scoring load in Antetokounmpo’s absence with 23 points, while the Bucks’ bench added 42. The balanced scoring effort helped offset the absence of Antetokounmpo (back soreness) as the Bucks fell eight points short of their NBA-leading 120.2-point per game average coming into Friday’s contest.
“Coming off a game where we didn’t play our best (at Philadelphia), it was great to see the bounce-back,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer told reporters in his postgame press conference. “We’ve kind of come to expect that from the group.”
The Bucks have not lost back-to-back games at any point while building the NBA’s best record at 28-5. Depth has helped buoy Milwaukee along the way.
In addition to Antetokounmpo, the Bucks were also without Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe will miss Saturday’s contest, his eighth consecutive absence, due to a shin injury.
With Bledsoe out, Donte DiVincenzo has stepped up in the Bucks’ backcourt. He scored 10 points and made three steals at Atlanta. It was his third consecutive game with multiple steals after coming away with two against both Indiana and Philadelphia.
“His activity defensively stood out,” Budenholzer said. “Even when he first went into the starting lineup with Khris out, and now with (Bledsoe) out, he just finds a way to put his imprint on the game.”
Defensive intensity has been a hallmark for Orlando. The Magic came into their weekend back-to-back with the NBA’s third-lowest point-per-game yield, 104.9 — and that was before a stellar defensive performance on Friday.
Orlando held off Philadelphia, 98-97, despite nearly squandering an 11-point lead with under two minutes remaining. 76ers center Joel Embiid had a look at a would-be game-winning 3-pointer that drew rim, but fell off.
The Magic held Embiid to 8-of-21 shooting, with Khem Birch drawing a bulk of the defensive assignment.
“He’s not a center who will pop and shoot threes, but he really does the dirty work. And that’s what you need,” Evan Fournier said of Birch to FOX Sports Florida in his postgame interview. “That was a terrific performance from him.”
The Magic need a similar defensive effort on Saturday against an opponent that has hit 100 points or more in every game this season, and 57 straight regular-season games dating back to last season.
Slowing the explosive-scoring Bucks without their star center is a challenge. Containing them with Antetokounmpo in the lineup, should he return from the back injury that sidelined him on Friday, is especially daunting.
The Magic have seen just how daunting in two prior meetings this season. Antetokounmpo recorded 29 points, 14 rebounds and six assists in a 123-91 Bucks win over Orlando on Nov. 1, and 32 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists in the Bucks’ 110-101 win on Dec. 9.
Antetokounmpo is averaging more than 30 points per game on the season, but struggled offensively his last time out. Philadelphia limited the reigning Most Valuable Player to 8-of-27 shooting for 18 points on Christmas.
–Field Level Media