The Magic closed a tumultuous 2021 with a showdown against the reigning champions, the second of a pair of consecutive home dates against Giannis and the Bucks. Although they were able to keep things more consistently close during this one, they still ultimately had trouble matching Milwaukee’s firepower, falling 136-118 despite an energetic effort.
The two teams traded buckets across the feeling-out stages, with the Magic leaning on Franz Wagner, Gary Harris and Wendell Carter Jr. in the absence of their regular backcourt. The trio toiled hard, looking to both make plays for teammates and be aggressive in putting the ball on the floor and probing into the paint.
Unfortunately for Orlando, the Bucks had an All-Star triumvirate that they could turn to, with each of their big three taking turns going to work. Jrue Holiday got the first basket of the night, Khris Middleton put up 7 quick points on a variety of looks, and Giannis Antetokounmpo mixed up his usual inside power game with a make from deep as he powered his way to 7 first quarter points. These contributions ultimately allowed Milwaukee to build an early double-digit advantage, going up 23-13 at the 6:45 mark before it ultimately settled at 8 at the break.
Trailing 32-24 at the start of the second, the Magic got the first bucket of the new quarter off a corner three by Iggy Brazdeikis. They had a chance to cut further into the lead after some physical defense on Giannis on the next few possessions, but open looks from beyond the arc by Carter Jr. and Moe Wagner didn’t find the bottom of the net. RJ Hampton earned a clean one back after Milwaukee got their first three of the period to fall, the Magic continuing to hang tight as the game rolled on. They went to a time-out with 6:49 remaining in the half, having trimmed the margin slightly in trailing 43-36.
Things went back and forth as the game wound towards half-time, the Bucks seemingly controlling the play but unable to seriously distance themselves from the energetic Magic. Despite being out matched in the talent department the side continued to plug away at both ends of the floor, crowding space and challenging shots on defense while getting just enough individual brilliance from Franz Wagner and timely shot-making from his teammates to stay in touch. A couple of late triples to Wes Matthews helped the Bucks build a bit of a cushion, the Magic eventually going into the half trailing 63-51.
The difference at the main break really was outside shooting, with the Bucks having made 8 long-range jumpers (on 38.1% shooting) to the Magic’s 4 (23.5%). Add to that their 7 offensive rebounds and perfect 11-11 performance from the free-throw line and it was apparent how victories on the margins had added up to their double-digit lead. For the Magic, WCJ had a busy half with 6 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, a steal and a block, while Franz Wagner, Harris and Brazdeikis were pacing a balanced scoring effort by the team with 8, 7 and 7 respectively.
Orlando was able to make the faster start in the third, opening with a 10-5 spurt that sent the Bucks back to their team huddle. A pair of Tim Frazier tripled book-ended the run, the Magic also turning defense into offense during the sequence when Gary Harris threw down a coast-to-coast hammer after stealing an errant Holiday pass. The veteran continued his recent strong play throughout the quarter, cashing in a nifty back-door cut off a Carter Jr. find before dropping in a clean three-point make in transition that drew the Magic within 2 with 8:41 remaining.
Milwaukee looked to take some pace off the game at this point, entrusting the ball to their stars and asking them to generate offense. To Orlando’s credit they continued to battle, with WCJ and Freddie Gillespie in particular playing with physicality and purpose in the painted area. Carter Jr. was able to successfully transition this aggression at the other end, stuffing the ball on Giannis’ head and drawing a foul in the process. When Wagner hit a step-back three less than a minute later Orlando had knotted things up at 71 apiece, sparking hope of an unexpected upset.
Neither side was able to claim a clear advantage over the next few minutes, with opportunities and made baskets bouncing back and forth. The Magic were able to briefly push ahead 80-79 after Admiral Schofield finished a nice fast-break sequence, but Milwaukee countered by ripping off 8 straight points in a 49 second burst, opening up an 87-80 lead with the quarter winding down. The scoreboard ultimately came to rest at 96-85 courtesy of some Boogie Cousins bully ball in the closing minutes.
Despite maintaining a high level of effort down to the wire, the Magic simply weren’t able to reel in the Bucks. They opened the quarter by going to Giannis on possession after possession, the superstar powering his way to 12 of Milwaukee’s first 16 points of the period. When he took a breather it was Middleton and Holiday who again stepped up, each netting timely buckets that kept Orlando at arm’s length. Hampton, WCJ and Moe Wagner all drilled threes that threatened to get the Magic back into it, but they ultimately couldn’t find the late stops they needed to make things truly interesting. It told in the final score, Orlando falling to the potent Bucks 136-118 in a high-scoring affair.
Orlando’s three stars
Hockey is a pretty great sport, so I thought I would steal one of its best little touches for my own game analysis: the three stars. Here is who caught my eye tonight.
First star: Wendell Carter Jr. — drew the unenviable task of matching up against Giannis but was able to offer solid resistance against the superstar, playing him physically and frequently forcing him into tougher shots than he’s used to taking. 14 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists and a pair of stocks speaks to the well-rounded nature of his contributions on the night.
Second star: Franz Wagner — enjoyed a burst where it seemed he was again ascending to an enthralling level, but was ultimately more steady than superstar on the night. Still finished with 20 points on 6-12 shooting, including 2-3 from deep. The double-digit total was his 18th straight such effort, the longest streak by any rookie this season.
Third star: Gary Harris — the Gary Harris renaissance continues! The veteran guard racked up 17 points, 3 assists and 3 steals, arriving at his points on relatively efficient 7-15 shooting including 3-6 from deep.
Tonight’s loss brings 2021 to a close for the Magic with their record sitting at 7-29, a mark good for just fourteenth in the Eastern Conference. They’ll next be in action on Sunday when they match up with the Celtics.