To their credit, the eight healthy bodies the Milwaukee Bucks had available Wednesday night fought like crazy.
But with four players having to log over 40 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back, the Bucks simply ran out of gas as the game wore on. Orlando slowly chipped away at Milwaukee’s 19-point lead and eventually outexecuted the weary Bucks down the stretch to earn a 94-91 victory.
“They fought hard,” Bucks coach Larry Drew said. “When you are minus seven key guys and you come in and give that kind of effort, me as a coach, I have to be grateful for that effort they gave me. As shorthanded as we were, we still put ourselves in a great position.
“But I hope our guys can learn from this. It doesn’t matter how shorthanded you are, if you play smart, if you move the basketball and if you defend, you can put yourselves in position (to win).”
Already without Carlos Delfino for the season and Larry Sanders for six weeks, the Bucks expected to not have Luke Ridnour (back spasms) and Ersan Ilyasova (sore right ankle). But Zaza Pachulia needed to sit out Wednesday with a sore right foot, Brandon Knight couldn’t play the second half of the back-to-back with his hamstring injury and Gary Neal needed to be scratched with a sore left foot.
That left Drew with a starting lineup of Nate Wolters, O.J. Mayo, Khris Middleton, Caron Butler and Ekpe Udoh. Milwaukee had a bench of just Giannis Antetokounmpo, John Henson and Miroslav Raduljica, all of them forwards or centers.
The rookie Wolters was the only real option at point guard, as Drew had to work Middleton and Mayo at the position to give his starter an occasional blow.
Led by 12 points from Butler and 10 from Mayo, the Bucks jumped out to a 36-23 lead after the first quarter. Milwaukee grew its lead to 19 in the second quarter, but Orlando went on a late run to trail by just nine at the break.
An 11-0 Magic run in the third quarter to tie the game at 70-all was the beginning of the end for the Bucks. Milwaukee kept the game within striking distance for the entire fourth quarter but just didn’t make the plays late.
“We got off to a really strong start,” Drew said. “I was just hoping we’d be able to sustain, particularly in the second half. We did wear down. You can tell.
“But even when they went up by 6 (in the fourth quarter), our guys, they still fought and got it within one. We just didn’t make the plays down the stretch.”
Leading Orlando’s comeback was Arron Afflalo, who hit seven of his eight 3-pointers in the second half en route to a career-high 36 points. Not only did Afflalo lead the charge to get the Magic back in the game, but he made a couple of key plays to help seal the win.
“He got away from us,” Drew said. “He shot the ball extremely well tonight and just got away from us. We lost him a couple of times but there was dribble penetration that left him open in the corner. He was on fire tonight.”
To further add to Milwaukee’s injury crisis, Butler went down grabbing his left shoulder late in the fourth quarter. He’s scheduled to have an MRI on Thursday, leaving the Bucks with just seven healthy players for now.
Over half of the roster is currently hurt in some way, a staggering number. Drew has said time and time again he’s never seen this many injuries at once in the NBA and things keep getting worse.
“From an injury standpoint, certainly this is an all-time low for us,” Drew said. “This is the NBA and you have to keep marching. My guys did tonight. They came out and played extremely, extremely hard.”