ORLANDO, Fla. (AP)—The Orlando Magic are showing few signs of slowing down.
Dwight Howard added 18 points and eight rebounds in another strong defensive effort for Orlando, which held Milwaukee to 39.1 percent shooting.
The Magic (54-18) have won five straight and 12 of their last 14 to stay percentage points ahead of Boston for the Eastern Conference’s second seed.
“We’re just trying to find that rhythm that you can stay in,” Magic point guard Rafer Alston said. “It’s all about finding that groove going into the playoffs.”
Ramon Sessions and Charlie Bell had 19 points apiece for the Bucks, who lost their fourth straight and were dealt another crushing blow to their already fading playoff hopes. Milwaukee (31-42) is now four games back of Chicago and Detroit for the East’s final playoff spot with nine games left.
Even with slim chances left to make the playoffs, the Bucks say they’re not losing hope.
“If you start doing that, that’s a cowardly way out,” Bucks forward Richard Jefferson said. “To say, ‘Oh no, here we go,’ I’ve never been a part of that in my life and I don’t plan on starting now.”
Alston converted a three-point play after being fouled on a layup by Sessions to cap a 17-6 run that gave the Magic an 11-point lead midway through the third quarter. Desperate to save their playoff chances, the Bucks wouldn’t easily crumble.
Jefferson and Keith Bogans each made 3-pointers to cut Orlando’s lead to six, and Milwaukee appeared ready to make a second-half run. But the Bucks tired, and the Magic’s depth simply took over.
Marcin Gortat scored Orlando’s first six points of the fourth quarter on a dunk, an alley-oop from J.J. Redick and a layup after being fouled that put the Magic ahead 88-72. Orlando’s reserve center, not known for his dunking ability, even shocked his own teammates.
“I’m surprised he jumped,” Redick joked. “He’s been known to jump as high as a phone book on dunk attempts.”
The strong bench play allowed Magic coach Stan Van Gundy to rest his starters, clearing the bench midway through the fourth period. Van Gundy said he has made it a priority to get his bench players more minutes in the regular-season’s final weeks to gear up for the playoffs but winning still comes first.
“That whole second unit I thought, late third quarter, early fourth did a great job opening that game up,” Van Gundy said.
Coming off a big win over Boston on Wednesday that pushed Orlando percentage points ahead of the Celtics for the East’s second seed, the Magic were prime for a letdown.
Things certainly looked headed that way early. Orlando came out flat and played hardly like the team that outmuscled and outhustled the Celtics. And the Bucks took advantage.
Luke Ridnour, who returned after missing Wednesday’s loss at Toronto with back spasms, hit a 3-pointer during a 6-0 run that put Milwaukee ahead 26-23 early in the second quarter.
But it wouldn’t last, and Orlando started to find its rhythm with a couple nifty plays before the half.
Turkoglu hit an open jumper after a rare crossover that sent Luke Mbah a Moute falling, and Redick followed that up with a smooth reverse layup with his left hand past Jefferson that gave the Magic a 49-43 halftime lead.
“I don’t think about being disappointed or being elated or anything like that after wins and losses,” Bucks coach Scott Skiles said. “We’re trying to remain competitive right now. It’s fairly obvious we’re having a hard time doing that.”
In an odd officiating blunder, Skiles was called for a technical foul for arguing a call in the second quarter and referees accidentally began to award Milwaukee a free throw. Ridnour started to shoot, but officials corrected the mistake and gave the Magic the free throw, which Redick missed. … Magic players, coaches and executives will host the 19th annual Orlando Magic Youth Fund Black Tie & Tennies Charity Gala on Saturday night. Earlier this year, the Orlando Magic Youth Fund distributed more than $750,000 to 27 Central Florida organizations.