Stan Van Gundy saw nothing but warning signs as tipoff approached Saturday night. Three times in the previous 21 days, his Orlando Magic took the Milwaukee Bucks too lightly. The Magic won each of those games, but they needed fourth-quarter comebacks to do it.
No wonder Van Gundy felt sick to his stomach as the Bucks scored 39 points during Saturday's second quarter. That is unacceptable, and Van Gundy told his players so at halftime.
"Let's put it this way: I was adamant," Van Gundy recalled. "I wasn't breaking anything. I don't think I was going crazy. But I was pretty adamant about what needed to happen. It was probably as adamant as I've been all year."
It took a little while longer, but the Magic finally woke up. Better defense and a big run late in the third quarter and at the beginning of the fourth propelled them to a 114-98 win over the Bucks at Amway Center.
"Our defense had to get better and it did," point guard Jameer Nelson said.
Dwight Howard provided game highs of 28 points and 14 rebounds. Chris Duhon chipped in 12 points and spelled Nelson after Nelson picked up his fourth foul early in the second half. And four other Magic players scored in double figures.
But the improved effort on defense was the difference. After giving up 39 points on 65 percent shooting in the second quarter, Orlando held Milwaukee to 38 points on 36 percent shooting during the entire second half.
"They had us on a 39-point second quarter, and we can't do that," power forward Ryan Anderson said.
Van Gundy warned his players about a possible letdown as early as Saturday morning.
He invoked an unusual comparison to explain his point. He likened the Bucks to tigers and the Magic to tiger trainers Siegfried and Roy.
In games on Feb. 11, Feb. 17 and Feb. 20, the Bucks outhustled the Magic to loose basketballs, hit the offensive boards hard and played with all-around grit. Each of those efforts nearly resulted in Milwaukee victories and should have proven to Orlando that the Bucks can be dangerous, just like Siegfried and Roy’s tigers were.
During the second and third quarters Saturday, it looked like history would repeat itself.
The Magic dominated the Bucks early, racing out to a 36-19 lead late in the first quarter after a 3-pointer by Hedo Turkoglu.
It all seemed so easy to that point. Five of Howard's first six baskets came off dunks, typically by alley-oop passes. Howard's teammates had no problems either; they made five of their first 10 attempts from beyond the 3-point arc. And the Bucks were shooting just 42 percent from the field.
But the Bucks (14-23) don't give up easily, which is a lesson the Magic (24-14) already should have learned before the disastrous second quarter.
On Saturday, Orlando's problems stretched beyond halftime. Nelson was whistled for his fourth foul with 8:59 to go in the third and went to the bench.
With the Bucks ahead 78-76 with 3:14 remaining in the period and Howard just 4 of 10 from the foul line, Milwaukee coach Scott Skiles went to a Hack-a-Howard strategy. Jon Brockman fouled Howard just as Howard crossed midcourt on a Magic offensive possession, and Howard went on to make just one of his two free throws.
But Howard's teammates had his back. Howard’s made free throw started a 16-2 run.
Turkoglu and Duhon executed a give-and-go on a fastbreak for an easy layup by Turkoglu that put Orlando ahead 79-78. On the next trip down the floor, Duhon sank a 3 to extend the lead to 82-78.
As the offense improved, so did the defense.
"Our energy on the defensive end in the second half was tremendous," Duhon said. "Holding a team to 38 points for the whole half? That's the team that we're capable of being every night."
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