Milwaukee looks to earn its first win over Maurice Harkless and Co. this season.
Though the All-Star break is typically recognized as the halfway point in the NBA season, only 30 games remain on the Bucks’ schedule. The first of those comes Tuesday against one of Milwaukee’s primary competitors for the top pick in the 2014 draft.
Such has been the prevailing outlook over the past few months since the Bucks’ free fall to the bottom of the league began after a 2-13 start. A one-win month of January all but solidified the team’s lottery destiny, and Wednesday’s loss to the Pelicans officially dropped Milwaukee (9-43) out of the Central Division race – a mere formality for a team trailing first-place Indiana by 31 games. From here on out,
The focus is on the future, and the same can be said for the Orlando Magic (16-38), owners of the league’s third-worst record. It’s the Magic’s first trip north to Milwaukee this season, having defeated the Bucks in both of the teams’ previous matchups at the Amway Center. On Nov. 13, Orlando squeaked out a 94-91 over a depleted Milwaukee squad behind 36 points (including eight three-pointers), eight rebounds and six assists from Arron Afflalo. The Bucks, in the midst of one of many early-season injury barrages, had just eight active players. A month-and-a-half later, Orlando pulled out a 113-102 victory on Jan. 31, again led by 21 points from Afflalo. The Bucks trailed 67-46 at halftime, avoiding a lopsided finals score by virtue of a 38-point fourth quarter.
While the Bucks entered the All-Star break on a four-game skid and have won just two games in 2014, the Magic will look to recapture some pre-break momentum. Orlando headed into the break with a loss to Memphis but boasted victories over Indiana, Oklahoma City and Detroit in three games prior. Though virtually out of contention for a playoff spot, the final two months of the season will be huge for a young team looking to groom players like Tobias Harris, Victor Oladipo and Maurice Harkless. Oladipo, an opponent of Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Rising Stars Challenge, leads all rookies in scoring at 13.9 points per game.
Milwaukee is looking to do the same, and one youngster in particular, second-year forward John Henson, will have plenty of opportunities to shine down the stretch with Larry Sanders sidelined at least six weeks with an orbital fracture. Henson has thrived as an interior defender and rebounder this season, but his minutes have been fairly limited in comparison to his production. Henson averages 11.9 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in 27.9 minutes, but he played fewer than 30 minutes in all nine of his January games (Henson was sidelined with an ankle injury). Per-36 minutes, his averages jump to 15.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.8 blocks, a line on par with some of the best defensive centers in the league. Pacers’ All-Star Roy Hibbert, by comparison, averages 13.8 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per-36 minutes.
Third-year point shooting guard Brandon Knight should also continue to see big minutes, as he’s been Milwaukee’s lone dependable scorer this season. Prior to the break, Knight averaged 22.3 points in his last three games.
Key to victory: Containing Afflalo
As the great Pusha T once said, “keys open doors.” And in this case, the key to opening the doors of victory (work with me here) will be keeping Arron Afflalo in check. Certainly containing Nic Vucevic in the paint is a concern for a Bucks team lacking its starting center, but the more pressing concern is minimizing Afflalo’s impact. The All-Star snub averages 19.4 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting and is strong enough to handle any defender Milwaukee throws his way. Khris Middleton will likely get the assignment to start, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if Giannis Antetokounmpo chased him around for some stretches.
– Any time Milwaukee and Orlando square off for the foreseeable future, you can count on someone mentioning the now-infamous Tobias Harris trade at last season’s deadline. Hopefully, as time passes, the sting of gifting the Magic the promising prospect will dissipate, but it doesn’t look like that’ll happen any time soon – at least not until Harris stops posting 28-point, 20-rebound lines, as he did Jan. 24 against the Lakers.
– Milwaukee is expected to get a trio of contributors back from injury in Henson, Caron Butler and the long-lost O.J. Mayo. Henson missed the final game before the break with an ankle injury, while Butler missed four games with an ankle injury of his own. Mayo has not played since Jan. 25 after a bout with the flu.
– Larry Drew indicated at Monday’s practice that Nate Wolters and Zaza Pachulia would remain in the starting lineup for the time being, a likely indication that Giannis Antetokounmpo will continue to come off the bench. Drew said Henson would see time at center, and it’s unknown whether he or Ersan Ilyasova will get the start at power forward.
C – Nic Vucevic
PF – Glen Davis
SF – Tobias Harris
SG – Arron Afflalo
PG – Jameer Nelson
C – Zaza Pachulia
PF – Ersan Ilyasova
SF – Khris Middleton
SG – Nate Wolters
PG – Brandon Knight
Points: Afflalo (19.4), Knight (16.7)
Rebounds: Vucevic (10.8), Henson (8.0)
Assists: Nelson (6.6), Knight (4.9)
Blocks: Vucevic (0.9), Henson (2.2)
PER: Vucevic (18.0), Henson (19.2)
Scoring: 24th (96.0)
Scoring defense: 18th (101.3)
Rebounds: 22nd (42.1)
Assists: 21st (20.5)
Scoring: 29th (92.3)
Scoring defense: 22nd (101.8)
Rebounds: 25th (41.1)
Assists: 17th (21.0)
Jan. 31 highlights