MILWAUKEE — Forward Giannis Antetokounmpo has drawn much of the Bucks’ sparse positive attention this season — and rightfully so — but second-round pick Nate Wolters, a point guard out of South Dakota State — is quietly establishing himself as a key part of Milwaukee’s rotation.
Wolters’ unlikely rookie season reached another high Tuesday when he scored 15 points — including a go-ahead 3-pointer with 29 seconds to play — in the Bucks’ 104-100 victory over the Magic at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
“I’m feeling a lot better from (beyond the arc),” said Wolters, who now has five 3-pointers in his past three games. “I just have to shoot with confidence. Hopefully I can keep it up. I’ve been playing so many minutes, and coach (Larry) Drew is giving me an opportunity, so I have to be able to knock some shots down.”
The Bucks’ two rookies played a pivotal role down the stretch as Milwaukee held off Orlando over the final minutes.
Milwaukee went ahead by eight on forward John Henson’s dunk with 8:56 to play, but after a Magic turnover, the Bucks missed their next three shots and Orlando scored seven straight to make it an 89-88 game with 6:43 to play.
Coming out of a timeout, Henson scored a quick basket, giving the Bucks a three-point lead, but Orlando tied it up on a 3-pointer by guard E’Twaun Moore.
Antetokounmpo broke the tie with a long 3-pointer. He got a timely steal on the defensive end and found Wolters for an easy layup, but Orlando answered and tied the game one last time on center Nikola Vucevic’s jumper with 50 seconds to play.
“Both guys came up with big plays,” Drew said of Wolters and Antetokounmpo. “Giannis knocked a big 3 and Nate knocked down a big 3, but I thought both guys made some defensive plays, getting their hands on balls. Giannis got the steal and got fouled at half-court, and Nate come up with a steal prior to that.
“Both guys played really well on both ends of the floor.”
Wolters found himself in the starting lineup for the 15th time this season after usual starter Brandon Knight suffered a cut to his foot earlier in the day.
Knight was expected to play limited minutes, but he started and played 35, scoring 18 points. He made all 12 of his free throws but shot just 3-for-13 from the floor.
“I saw him grimacing a few times when he was out on the floor,” Drew said. “I’m sure there has to be some discomfort from the pounding you take over the course of a game. Hopefully, he’s OK.”
Thanks to the All-Star break, Drew was playing with a surplus of healthy bodies for the first time in weeks.
Forward Caron Butler, who hadn’t played since Feb. 3 due to a sprained left ankle, came out of the break strong, scoring a team-leading 21 points — on seven 3-pointers — in 29 minutes off the bench.
Butler had 12 in the second quarter alone as Milwaukee went ahead by as many as 14 despite shooting just 43 percent from the field while allowing Orlando to sink half of its shots.
“Caron really got us going in the first half,” Drew said “He came in and was making shots.”
Overall, the Magic shot 50 percent from the field and made 11 of 25 3-pointers, but they went 9-for-16 from the free-throw line. Milwaukee (10-43) made 22 of 30 foul shots but hit just 42.7 percent of its field-goal attempts.
“I think the free throws were the big thing,” Orlando coach Jacque Vaughn said. “Their ability to get into the bonus, get downhill, get into the lane was a big part of them winning tonight.”
The Magic (16-39) got 21 points from guard Arron Afflalo and 19 from Vucevic. Forward Tobias Harris added 16 on 6-for-11 shooting. He added nine rebounds against his former team.
“It’s the little things of the game,” Harris said. “You have to be focused. We have to know the fouls that we have, we have to know that they’re in the (bonus). You have to be perfect, basically, you have to be almost perfect, especially on the road in a tight game, to come out and win.”
Orlando lost its 13th consecutive road game.
NOTES: Magic G Kyle O’Quinn’s seven assists were a career high. … Over his past eight games, Bucks PG Nate Wolters has 38 assists and just six turnovers. … Orlando is 3-24 on the road this season, the worst road mark in the NBA. … Bucks G O.J. Mayo, out since Jan. 25 with the flu, was available but did not play.
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