One week ago, the Orlando Magic and the Milwaukee Bucks had two of the best records in the Eastern Conference. While the reigning conference champion Magic are just as confident after a big win over another contender, the upstart Bucks have begun to slip.
The Magic go for their seventh win in eight games Saturday night when they visit the Bucks, losers of three straight.
Orlando (12-4) had a few stumbles while dealing with key injuries and suspensions early in the season, but those absences didn’t stop the Magic from getting off to a hot start. They rebounded from their fourth loss with a 93-76 win at Atlanta on Thursday night, handing the Southeast Division rival Hawks their first home defeat while taking over the best record in the East.
Dwight Howard(notes) had 16 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots in the second half as Orlando rallied from a 12-point halftime deficit. He finished with 22 points, 17 rebounds and four blocks.
“I came out in the second half and just trusted my teammates,” Howard said. “They made some open shots and I tried to dominate the paint. It doesn’t matter if we’re down 20, we’re going to continue to fight.”
Howard, who’s shooting 62.6 percent from the field - the third-best mark in the league - took 14 shots against the Hawks after averaging less than seven over his previous five games.
“The last couple of games I haven’t been aggressive enough,” he said. “Tonight I just kept asking for the ball, and we played inside-out, and it was successful for us.”
The Magic have had a lot of success against the Bucks with Howard in the lineup, winning seven of the last eight in the series when the three-time All-Star plays. Howard averaged 23.3 points, 11.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 3.3 blocked shots while shooting 61.3 percent in three victories over Milwaukee last season. He missed a 98-80 loss at the Bradley Center on April 13 because of a sore left knee.
Howard has 14 double-doubles in 17 career games against the Bucks.
This season’s Milwaukee team appeared capable of ending its troubles in this series during its hot start, but the Bucks (8-6) have struggled lately. They opened 8-3 but have since dropped three in a row, including a 108-90 loss - their most lopsided of the season - at Oklahoma City on Friday night.
Milwaukee gave up 17 straight points at the start of the third quarter to make a one-point halftime deficit much larger.
Standout rookie Brandon Jennings(notes) had 12 points and went 3 for 11 from the field against the Thunder, struggling for the third straight game after carrying the Bucks with 25.3 points per game during their strong start.
“I just wasn’t knocking anything down,” the 10th overall pick in June’s draft said.
Jennings is averaging 26.4 points and shooting 50.6 percent in the team’s eight wins. He’s been held to 17.5 points and 35.2 percent shooting in its six losses.
Though Bucks coach Scott Skiles has been very complimentary of Jennings, Milwaukee’s recent slump has been frustrating.
“It’s very difficult to win in this league with young, inexperienced players because they’re too inconsistent,” Skiles said Friday.