After falling short in an attempt to close the gap at the top of the Eastern Conference, Howard and the Magic visit the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night.
While Cleveland and Boston have received most of the attention in the East, Orlando (49-18) has worked its way into contention for the conference’s top seed with a strong March. The Magic won six of their first seven games this month, including an 86-79 win at Boston on March 8.
Orlando, however, was unable to take a step closer to catching the first-place Cavaliers, losing 97-93 in Cleveland on Tuesday. The Magic dropped five games behind the Cavaliers and remained one-half game behind the Celtics, who lost at Chicago.
Howard scored 13 points - nearly eight below his season average - while adding 15 rebounds and six blocked shots. He did not attempt a shot in the fourth quarter as Cleveland rallied from a nine-point, third-quarter deficit and Howard was called for a critical 3-second violation in the final seconds after the Cavs had taken a 95-93 lead.
“I kick myself on a couple of play calls,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “They were coming every time he (Howard) had the ball, but we still probably should have gone to him a little bit more throughout the game, not just at the end.”
Both Howard and the Magic figure to bounce back Wednesday. Orlando, which has one of the league’s best road records at 23-11, hasn’t lost back-to-back games since late January while Howard has been held below 15 points in consecutive contests only three times this season.
As Orlando makes a push for the top seed in the conference, Milwaukee (31-38) is trying to move back into the final playoff spot in the East. The Bucks recorded just their fourth win in the last 13 games Sunday, beating Boston 86-77.
Despite Milwaukee’s struggles, Orlando knows it cannot afford to overlook the Bucks - a mistake the defending NBA champions may have been guilty of over the weekend.
“Right now in the East, it’s going to be a dogfight for the one, two and three seed,” guard Anthony Johnson said. “So every game is important and you can’t overlook anybody because you have a lot of teams that are trying to work their way into the playoff mix.”
Milwaukee shot 32.6 percent Sunday, but forced 25 turnovers and held the Celtics to 37.7 percent from the field. Charlie Villanueva led the Bucks with 19 points on 8-of-20 shooting.
“I felt it was one of our better defensive games,” coach Scott Skiles said. “It’s not too often you shoot a little over 30 percent for the game and still win the game.”
The Bucks had allowed 107.3 points in the previous 12 contests.
Milwaukee is looking to win two straight for the first time since a three-game winning streak Feb. 9-17. The Bucks, one of six teams fighting for the eighth spot in the conference, are in ninth - one-half game behind Chicago.
The Magic beat the Bucks at home on Nov. 24, 108-101. Orlando has won seven of the last nine overall meetings, but Milwaukee has won 18 of 22 at home.