Milwaukee and Orlando entered this contest as teams currently taking divergent paths. The Bucks, possessed of the league’s best record at 44-7, came into this one having won 12 of their last 13 games; by comparison, the Magic haven’t beaten a team other than the Hornets in 25 days (and counting). Any potential David and Goliath styled upset was going to require a Herculean effort by the players in pinstripes.
Although the Magic started slowly, allowing the Bucks to double them up inside of the game’s first three-minutes, it was a relatively even opening quarter. Orlando struggled to close out on Milwaukee’s shooters, with Wes Matthews getting loose for three triples in the period, and Kris Middleton and Pat Connaughton also both adding a tally. However, Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross were all able to find some scoring touch of their own, the team generally limited turnovers, and they collectively restricted the damage that Giannis Antetokounmpo might have unleashed (scoreless from the field, but 3 assists). It was 30-24, Milwaukee’s favor at the first break.
The second quarter followed a similar script. Orlando struggled to generate offensive fluidity, relying heavily on isolation ball and Fournier’s ability to connect from deep. Defensively, the Milwaukee shooters continued to find space. Kyle Korver and Brook Lopez both had a pair of long-distance makes in the frame, with the Bucks ultimately closing the half at 45% from beyond the arc (9-20). However, the most damaging aspect of the quarter was the fact that Giannis started to get going; he had eight exclamative points in the quarter as he steamrolled through the paint, chipping in another three assists for good measure. The Greek Freak was looking ominous.
At the main break the numbers revealed how Milwaukee were able to build a 17 point lead. As a team they shot 51.0% from the field compared to just 35.8% for Orlando, including a 45.0% to 30.4% advantage from behind the line. They were more effective cleaning the defensive glass, the only team to score on the fast break, and more damaging in the paint (24 points to 16). They also forced a stalemate with the Magic in other key areas, as the free-throw and turnover battle remained basically even. Ultimately, though, it was the shooting numbers that Orlando would have to overcome in the second half if they were going to get back into a game they trailed 63-46.
Unfortunately, the third quarter didn’t provide evidence of a changing script. The opening two minutes served as a microcosm of the game: Orlando’s inability to make shots contrasted with the ease with which Milwaukee scored the ball. During this short burst Fournier missed a pair of early jumpers and Markelle Fultz was denied at the rim twice; by comparison, Giannis threw down an emphatic and basically uncontested slam, Matthews drilled another triple, and Lopez continued the parade of points in the paint for his team. Ascendancy Bucks, timeout Magic.
When Gordon split a pair of free-throws with 8:18 in the quarter it was the first point the Magic had recorded in almost seven minutes of play (6:57) spanning the end of the second and start of the third. To that point it had been a 15-0 Milwaukee run that stretched their lead to 25, 72-47. Although Orlando didn’t just roll over — with Vucevic racking up 8 straight of his own on some sweet jumpers and nice post play — they simply couldn’t stop the Bucks’ onslaught. Giannis had another dunk, Middleton another triple, and Lopez another deep splash. With 5:14 still to play in the quarter the Magic found themselves down 82-55, seemingly without any answers.
Interestingly, Orlando came out of another timeout and began to push back. They rattled off 13 straight before Milwaukee were able to get a settler at the line, with Fultz drilling a three, Iwundu and Gordon adding to the tally, and Ross showing signs of heating up (as well as his classic ‘fouled shooting the three’ routine). When Gary Clark connected from deep in the quarter’s closing seconds the run had stretched to 16-2, bringing the Magic back within 13, down just 84-71. It wasn’t exactly ‘game on’, but the heartbeat of a comeback could faintly be heard.
The push continued to open the fourth. The Magic were aggressive in getting to good spots on the floor, hunting out attempts in the paint and generating a steady stream of free-throw attempts (Ross, again, drew contact on a three-point attempt. Because of course). When Michael Carter-Williams made a nice little banked floater in the lane the lead had been cut to single digits, 89-80.
However, Milwaukee ultimately had the counterpunches they needed when the game was on the line. Middleton, Lopez and Eric Bledsoe all made big buckets, including a pair of huge triples from the Bucks’ center. Really, that was the story of the game - the Bucks shot the three-ball well while the Magic couldn’t connect when they did find themselves open. Milwaukee hit almost 40% of their long-range attempts, making 15 of 39 for the game. By comparison, Orlando sunk just 10 of 40 (25%). In a game ultimately decided by 17 points, it’s a meaningful difference.
When the final siren sounded it was 112-95, Milwaukee’s way. Lopez paced the Bucks with 23 points and 7 rebounds (including a perfect 5-5 from beyond the arc), while Middleton had 21, 13 and 6 and Bledsoe put up 18, 4 and 8. Giannis was also a monster, finishing one assist shy of a triple-double with a line of 19, 18 and 9 amidst a tough shooting night (just 6-17 from the field). For the Magic, Vucevic had 21 and 14, Ross added 20 off the bench, and Fournier finished with 14 and 4 assists.
Orlando’s three stars
Hockey is a pretty great sport, so I thought I would steal one of its best little touches for my own game analysis: the three stars. Here is who caught my eye tonight.
First star: Nikola Vucevic — 21 points, 14 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 blocks are evidence of a productive night. Although he struggled when the Bucks stretched him to the perimeter on defense, his offense was the only thing keeping the Magic afloat at all for a large stretch during the middle of the game. If only he could have got the three-ball to fall...
Second star: Terrence Ross — Did what he did so well last season: provided instant offense and kick-started a Magic run. He finished with 20 points despite only making one triple, evidence of an aggression that’s been missing from his play recently.
Third star: Aaron Gordon — Had a putrid night shooting the ball (2-12 from the field and 0-6 from beyond the arc), but played stellar defense on Giannis as he hounded him in the half court. Also added 9 rebounds and 5 assists, ensuring a contribution despite his difficulties on offense.
In a game in which they were massive underdogs, the Magic failed to upset the apple cart. While the final result was ultimately expected, the broader implications must be causing some consternation in Orlando: what if this is the playoff matchup the team sees come April?! With a day off tomorrow the team will look to regroup against Atlanta on Monday night.