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Preview: Bucks Look to Break Losing Streak Against Magic


Ekpe Udoh’s defense is essential in the absence of Larry Sanders. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

This is where the 2013-14 Milwaukee Bucks are: down one-third of their recently reconstructed roster due to injury, they’re on a two-game losing skid, sitting near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings while sporting one of the worst average point differentials (-5.5) in the league. And the team now faces the Orlando Magic and one of the rookies giving his franchise the best early returns.

Yep. Sounds like Milwaukee’s luck.

All stats for the Bucks are products of small sample size at this point in the season, but the bench has been making up for the starting lineup’s general inability to keep up against opponents that can score and with injuries piling up, rarely used (so far) line-ups will likely find more playing time. Does this mean it’s time to hit the panic button? No, but the Bucks are 2-4, missing the should-be-face-of-the-franchise and unquestioned defensive leader, Larry Sanders, and playing in a slightly stronger East than in recent seasons. Last night, the Deer lost 118-95 to the Miami Heat as LeBron James sat out the entire fourth quarter — and maybe it isn’t too early to acknowledge that this happened just before young Canadian hype machine Andrew Wiggins notched a 22-point, 10-rebound performance in his first major college basketball game as Wiggins’ Kansas Jayhawks beat an equally stacked Duke squad by double digits.

What to Watch For:

- Sanders Out, Udoh In: Even though he has gotten relatively little playing time this season, the Bucks defense is entirely different without a rim-protecting presence like Sanders. This should provide valuable time for John Henson to get in-game experience improving that portion of his game, but Ekpe Udoh will be the player needing to provide intensity on the less glamorous side of the court. He’s already seen an uptick in minutes, going from a per-game average of 12.5 to 17 minutes against Miami. Only grabbing two rebounds and one steal, Udoh’s line was less than spectacular, but compared to Sanders on the season, Udoh has a significant edge in most categories (offense included) other than blocks:

 

Player FG FGA FG% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
Ekpe Udoh 2.9 8.6 .333 4.3 5.8 10.1 1.4 2.9 1.4 1.4 2.9 5.8
Larry Sanders 2.8 11.1 .250 2.1 5.5 7.6 1.4 0.0 4.2 2.1 6.2 5.5

- Middleton’s Minutes: According to 82games.com, Milwaukee’s offense is at its best, and defense at its third-best, when Khris Middleton is on the floor. Take that with a grain of salt, obviously, but the Bucks score an average of 1.18 points per possession and relinquish 0.96 ppp when Middleton occupies either forward position. He had played during 42 percent of Milwaukee’s game time prior to Tuesday night, with stints in two five-man units with a +11 rating and one unit of +13. Considering the Bucks’ lowly point differential, closely managing Middleton’s minutes and rolling out the proper line-ups around him could help shore up some of the team’s scoreboard woes.

- Sluggish or Spirited?: Pace projects to be a deciding factor in a game featuring a team playing the NBA’s ninth-fastest basketball (the Magic; 97.2 possessions per 48 minutes) and another that leads only four other teams in pace (the Bucks; 91.8 possessions). Without the Brandon Jennings/Monta Ellis duo, the Bucks aren’t pushing the ball in transition as much (and, it can be assumed, aren’t chucking as many attempts early in the shot clock) as last season when the team averaged over 94 possessions, good for third in the NBA. On the other hand, Orlando has improved in this category as rookie shooting guard Victor Oladipo works on both ends of the court, moving in transition and running the break after opponents’ turnovers. And once he gets a head of steam in the open court, Oladipo has a flair for making a statement for the crowd. That’s definitely not what the Bucks want in a road game.

- The Former-Player-Vs.-Old-Franchise Storyline: Nope. This would be a valid narrative if not for a nagging ankle sprain suffered in the preseason by former Buck Tobias Harris, jettisoned in last season’s J.J. Redick lease only to lead the Magic in scoring for the remainder of the season. Harris is yet to play in the regular season and is expected to miss a few more weeks. There are three other opportunities for this showdown after the new year, however. Until then…

- Back-to-Back Struggles: This is Milwaukee’s second back-to-back of the young season. After beating Boston on the front side of the last two-games-in-two-nights schedule, the Bucks fell at home to Toronto. If history repeats itself, it will be too early to call the Deer losing the back end a trend, and it may not matter because the team will have a larger problem, namely a three-game losing streak heading into Friday’s match-up with the undefeated Indiana Pacers for the first time this season.