MILWAUKEE — Orlando Magic officials entered this season prepared to make a tradeoff. They stocked their roster with young, inexperienced players who might develop into bona fide contributors. The kids would be given a chance to play, especially when the team’s veterans faced injuries.
But in looking toward the future, the Magic knew they might be sacrificing the present. Youngsters face a challenging learning curve in the NBA, and there can be as many frustrating moments as exhilarating ones.
Saturday night provided more present-day misery but also some hope for the future. The Magic lost their ninth consecutive game, falling to the Milwaukee Bucks 107-98. In the process, however, rookie small forward Maurice Harkless demonstrated why his coach has raved about his potential.
“This is the NBA, everybody can play,” Harkless said. “It’s just a matter of when you’re going to get an opportunity, and I think we did a good job today of competing. Unfortunately, we didn’t come out with a win, but I think we showed what we can do.”
The wiry 19-year-old small forward scored 19 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and played 42 minutes, all career highs. He also absorbed a blow to the face late in the first half that left him momentarily dazed and the bridge of his nose black-and-blue and swollen.
“He deserves good things to happen to him,” coach Jacque Vaughn said. “Your rookie year, you never get it back, and [there are] a lot of lessons to be learned. Those lessons add up and a lot of times direct the course of your career, and he’s done a great job of continuing to work on his game.”
As with most rookies, negatives accompanied the positives.
Harkless made just five of the nine free throws he attempted.
His teammates struggled at the line also.
The Magic made just 11 of their 22 foul shots, a success rate that made the long odds against them even longer.
They entered the night without three injured starters: wing Arron Afflalo, power forward Glen Davis and point guard Jameer Nelson.
Even with Afflalo, Davis and Nelson in the lineup, Orlando (14-33) just doesn’t match up athletically against most opponents. Those deficiencies — in creating shots off the dribble, in one-on-one defense and in size, especially in the backcourt — leave the Magic at a disadvantage.
The Bucks (25-21) exploited those weaknesses, as well as the Magic’s injury woes, Saturday night.
Shooting guard Monta Ellis scored 21 points and dished out 11 assists. Point guard Brandon Jennings added 20 points and five assists.
“We just closed the game out and made shots when we needed to make them,” Ellis said. “We simply knocked down free throws down the stretch.”
True. The Bucks sank their final nine free-throw attempts and withstood a late rally in which the Magic cut the lead to 103-98 on a pair of foul shots by Harkless with 31.2 seconds left.
“I think Moe Harkless played really well,” said Magic guard J.J. Redick, who scored 15 points on 5-of-16 shooting and had eight assists. “He played hard on both ends.”
It took Harkless more than a quarter to recover from the shot to his nose.
After he scored 11 points in the first half, he didn’t make another basket until he put in a layup with 7:15 left in the game.
But in playing the second half, he showed he has some toughness. A doctor examined Harkless after the final buzzer, and it’s possible that Harkless broke his nose.
“I’ve got to keep working,” the rookie said. “I’m getting better at some things, but I’ve got to keep improving. How many free throws did I miss today? Five? That’s something that should be automatic.”
This is the tradeoff.
The Magic’s youthful playing rotation outrebounded the scrappy Bucks 52-42, but the youngsters made their share of errors on the defensive end.
The defeat was Orlando’s 20th over its last 22 games.
“We’ve just got guys that’ll compete and come play hard,” said E’Twaun Moore, who replaced Nelson in the lineup.
“That’s what you ask for: Everyone coming out, play hard and try to win ballgames. If we come out and say that we put it all on the line, it makes us feel a little better.”
firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/magicblog and follow him on Twitter at @JoshuaBRobbins.