We are about 24 hours away from tip off between the Orlando Magic and Milwaukee Bucks.
So, we thought it was the perfect time to speak with those who best know the top-seeded Bucks: our friends over at the Bucks community Brew Hoop. Mitchell Maurer, the site’s co-managing editor, was nice enough to sit down for a Q&A to give us a better idea of the challenge that the Magic are about to face...
OPP: The Bucks went 3-5 in the bubble. What happened and is there any concern heading into the playoffs?
Maurer: “Two things: they’re out of their comfort zone, and they’re bored. That sounds arrogant to say and, truthfully, it is. But this is the best team in the NBA in the regular season, that was on pace to cruise well past 60 wins for the second straight year. Then the shutdown happened, and home court advantage no longer exists. So they, along with everyone else in the bubble, have to adapt to that new environment...but the reality is that they just didn’t care about the seeding games. They were playing for two things: health and conditioning. Most of the teams they played against had something to prove, either for their own postseason positioning or to test their mettle against the league’s top franchise. All those ingredients together made for a sub-par showing to end the regular season, and the focus is now taking things one game at a time, at least sixteen times.
“The primary concern heading into the playoffs is that Milwaukee is playing like a team that can flip the switch at will, and save for a tremendous second half against the Miami Heat, they’ve not consistently demonstrated that switch-flipping ability. Maybe they can do it, but they still have to show us for us to believe it.”
OPP: In what ways are the Bucks better this season than last season when they lost in the conference finals?
Maurer: “By virtue of bringing back most (but not all) of the band from last season, the Bucks’ effectively increased the margin of error for their playoff rotation. Instead of (the shell of) Nikola Mirotic from last summer, they have heady veteran Marvin Williams, who along with George Hill and Kyle Korver, can each play with Giannis and stabilize second-units. Instead of relying on Ersan Ilyasova as their backup center, they acquired a literal copy of defensive stalwart Brook Lopez in his twin brother, Robin Lopez. And instead of Malcolm Brogdon, an excellent player who simply wanted a bigger opportunity, they have Wes Matthews, who is happy to space the floor and grind against opposing wings.
“They’ve doubled down on the system while still retaining the flexibility necessary to complement All-Stars Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. The system (five-out on offense, zone drop to protect the rim on defense) will win them most games against most opponents, and when the system short-circuits (like it did against the stellar effort of Kawhi Leonard’s Toronto Raptors last May) they have two alternatives prepared: Brooklyn-ball from Brook Lopez (26.5 pts/36 minutes in the bubble, 19th in the NBA) against smaller opponents, and Giannis-at-center lineups (net rating: +21.7 per 100 possessions) when they absolutely need it.”
OPP: Any advice on how the Magic can slow down Giannis? (And were you surprised he was suspended only one game for the headbutt?)
Maurer: “If you have a goon on your squad, Giannis has proven that he will take the bait sooner or later. The Mo Wagner “scandal” did not reveal anything new; Giannis’ frustration with the way that he is officiated has been building up for years. Our resident BlogFather Frank Madden did the research and found that the one-game suspension completely fit the precedent, but it doesn’t take a punishment from the league for Giannis to get out of his game and into his head.
“Of all the fanbases in the NBA, Magic fans probably know how hard it was for Shaquille O’Neal to get a legitimately fair whistle. Not only was Shaq bigger than just about anybody who was guarding him, but he was both way stronger and way quicker than them, too. Giannis is, for all intents and purposes, the new Shaq, the Big Diesel himself said so. Giannis will overwhelm opponents with his physical gifts, but opponents can turn that against him by employing the strategy we all love to hate: flopping.
“Giannis draws 8.2 fouls per game, the highest mark in the league. But he is fouled on more plays than that, in no small part because the refs simply can’t call everything. We would still be playing that Wizards game if they did, where Giannis shot 10 free throws in 12 minutes. That frustrates him, and what frustrates him even more is when defenders move in front of his drives to try and take a charge, and even if they’re not set or otherwise not in a legitimate guarding position, his strength overpowers them and it can look like a charge, taking his momentum and literally turning it the other way. Beyond that, smaller players are allowed to use as many hands as they have on him when he posts up (looking at you, Marcus Smart), and it never gets called the way that it should, because Giannis doesn’t flop (he probably should reconsider this stance) and the contact is usually enough to affect the play but not get whistled.”
OPP: Who is the unsung hero for the Bucks? A player who can make a surprise impact in this series?
Maurer: “Donte DiVincenzo had a lost season last year. As a rookie, he had trouble adjusting and a heel issue kept him shelved for a long time. This season, he’s turned out to be one of the team’s most effective defenders and is just competent enough of a shooter to keep his spot in the rotation. He blows up screens and stalks passing lanes, making more smart gambles than a second-year player would be expected. He hasn’t carried the team by any stretch, but he’s been a breath of fresh air on a roster that otherwise lacks young contributing talent.”
OPP: Does anything about the Orlando Magic concern you?
Maurer: “Jonathan Isaac is still out? You’re sure? If so, there’s not a ton about Orlando that presents a huge threat to the Bucks. Point guards Markelle Fultz and former Buck Michael Carter-Williams are not plus-shooters, which is one of Milwaukee’s weaknesses. Nikola Vucevic is going to have to work for every bucket against the Lopez twins, Evan Fournier is welcome to take as many midrange jump shots as he likes, and unless Aaron Gordon has suddenly put everything together, he’s never been a serious threat. The biggest worry is when players who get open shots get hot and carry the team for short stretches, and Terrence Ross and D.J. Augustin are candidates for that. Otherwise...it’s probably not going to be a long series.”
OPP: Your prediction for the series?
Maurer: “Bucks in 5. I think that Milwaukee has the best player, the better roster, the better scheme, and isn’t dealing with injuries, but the bubble is just so damn weird that even if the Bucks finally treat these games seriously, they’re going to stumble into a 30+ point explosion from Terrence Ross. Furthermore, Eric Bledsoe continues to play his way back into shape after a lengthy absence at the beginning of the restart, thanks to a positive COVID-19 test. He hasn’t yet looked like himself, and his perimeter aggressiveness is crucial to the Bucks’ league-leading defense.”
Thanks again to Mitchell for taking the time to share his insight. Be sure to follow him @Mitchell_NBA and check out all of the great content over at Brew Hoop.