Can the Magic beat the Bucks?
The word ‘can’ in that question ensures that the debate is a multi-faceted one. As a modal auxiliary verb with a variety of grammatical applications — one of which is to indicate the mere possibility of a specific outcome — Orlando fans should draw at least a modicum of strength from the fact that, as Kevin Garnett famously taught us, anything is possible.
Again: can the Magic beat the Bucks?
Indisputably, inarguably, undoubtedly; yes, they can.
Great! But will the Magic beat the Bucks?
Well, now we have a question with a far less favorable answer for the denizens of Central Florida.
Orlando comes into this match up as an all-time underdog, given less chance of progressing than any team still breathing and near-consensus status as an impending victim of a four-game sweep. Milwaukee are a rampaging force among the best the regular season has ever seen, with both an obscene offense and a stingy defense among the league’s elite. They’re loaded with All-Star talent and high level role-players across the roster, quarterbacked by a competent coaching staff, and blessed with health and cohesion at the most important juncture.
By comparison, the Magic are struggling. The offense has taken a hit of late as shooting numbers turned cold, while the defense has shown a worrying capacity to oscillate between stout and sieve-like. Numerous players haven’t been able to scale the same individual heights as the season prior, and now the specter of injury looms large over the franchise. The Bucks are humming a winning tune while the Magic are scrambling just to find the rhythm.
Still, the phrasing of the question — can Orlando topple Milwaukee in their first round playoff matchup? — demands a closer interrogation than the reductionist conclusion that this series is DOA. Let’s take a look at how the Magic might be able to breathe new life into KG’s old proclamation.
Besting the Bucks’ D
Whether or not the Magic can realistically threaten the Bucks in any individual game is going to come down to their ability to score points. It’s been the team’s Achilles’ heel for what feels like forever now, with even the recent offensive surge proving foundationally unreliable when exposed to the intensity of bubble play. Orlando generally struggles to put the ball in the basket, and Milwaukee doesn’t appear to be the type of team who will make this proposition any easier for them.
The Bucks finished the regular season as the league’s best ranked defensive outfit, conceding just 102.5 points per-100 possessions. This was more than an entire basket better than the second placed team, and 6.7 points more favorable than the defensive mark that the Magic themselves set. It’s the first of many sizable defense-based advantages that they’ll hold over Orlando when the first round gets underway.
Leading this beast is one of the three finalists for Defensive Player of the Year (not to mention the MVP race), Giannis Antetokounmpo. He’s a whirling dervish of energy at this end of the court, smothering any direct opponent unlucky enough to draw his attention, racking up blocks and steals, and playing stifling help defense. He’s able to both take away passing lanes and gum up dribble penetration opportunities thanks to his length and agility, along with the disruptive switchability that allows him to comfortably guard basically any position on the floor in a pinch. Opponents shoot 9.7% worse from the field on shot attempts he directly guards, an unrivaled figure among peers that only Anthony Davis is within shouting distance of. He also keeps the glass squeaky clean, vacuuming up an obscene 30.7% of all defensive rebounding opportunities, a rate second only to Andre Drummond (who does not roam anywhere near as far from the hoop as Giannis). Antetokounmpo’s league-leading individual defensive rating of 97.4 isn’t just a symptom of being on an elite defensive unit - he’s the indomitable spirit of the beast.
However, for all of the individual brilliance, there’s an argument to be made that he isn’t even the most important defensive cog on his own team. Although he might not get the same accolades as his attention-grabbing teammate, Brook Lopez is the unbreakable spine that supports this lockdown lineup. Anyone who has watched any Bucks basketball this year would know that the veteran big man rarely leaves the paint, daring opposing centers to shoot the long ball while he makes damn sure that the key remains impervious to penetration at all times. Splash Mountain tags every off-ball cutter that comes his way, keeping his head on a swivel to ensure a timely rotation should any teammate need his assistance. He’s the reason that the Bucks’ wings can jam up passing lanes with impunity and generally play such a hyperactive level of defense.
Lopez is also an elite shot blocker and challenger; he accrues 2.4 blocks per game and, more importantly, contests more two-point shots per game than any other player in the league, despite playing significantly less minutes than his immediate peers who also appear at the top of this leaderboard. Opponents are 5.9% less accurate on such attempts defended by the big man, testament to the disruptive capacity of both his length and positioning. A closer inspection of the seven-footer’s defensive presence goes a long way towards explaining just how the Bucks are able to restrict opponents to a ludicrously low 38.7 points per game in the paint. While Giannis might be the one receiving award buzz, make no mistake about it: Lopez is the cement that has solidified this defensive monstrosity.
So what are the Magic to do? Well, believe it or not, there are some minute cracks that could potentially be exploited. Considering how hard the Bucks work to wall off the paint, it’s not a complete surprise that they leak more three point attempts than any other side. On the season they allow the opponent to fire away 39.3 times per game from deep, with 21.3 being classified as wide open (nearest defender 6+ feet away). Both of these numbers rank last in the league, with an element of luck ultimately resulting in them being less damaging than they had the capacity to be; their opponents converted at the 16th (35.5%) and 27th (36.6%) most accurate clips on these shots, respectively. Milwaukee’s game plan means that the battle from beyond the arc is there to be won if the Magic are prepared to pull the trigger.
Unfortunately for Orlando, they might not be the team to take advantage of this chink in the armor. They were the 5th least accurate side from deep this season (just 34.3%), and only the 18th most willing to fire from deep (32.6 attempts per-100 possessions). Their most prolific outside shooter, Terrence Ross, has endured a down year in terms of accuracy, while the most reliably dangerous, Evan Fournier, has struggled with his radar since the return to play. Nikola Vucevic has been a sneakily bad long-distance bomber when wide open (which is, to no one’s surprise, precisely how Lopez will leave him), while another quality option in DJ Augustin has just headed back to a support role and will see a reduced opportunity to inflict such damage. The Magic simply might not have the cavalry to carve out an advantage here.
In other areas, the Bucks unfortunately bear a resemblance to the Magic themselves that will make scoring difficult. In locking down the defensive glass they give up very few offensive rebounds (just 9.5) and second chance points per game (only 11.3), while also limiting opportunities for the opposition at the line (a mere .178 free throws per opponent field goal attempt). Orlando already doesn’t do either of these things well, and will only find the sledding tougher against an elite opponent.
Interestingly, the Bucks can be found slightly wanting defensively when it comes to the fast break, ranking in the league’s bottom third by leaking 13.6 points each night in transition. Again, however, Orlando probably isn’t the team to capitalize on this, generally showing a disinclination towards pushing the pace and forcing opportunities on the run. That being said, we know that the Magic are good at getting their hands to balls and forcing turnovers, so a reasonable coaching adjustment would be to prioritize attack out of such circumstances and even to encourage a freneticism on the wings aimed at leveraging this facet of play. It would certainly come with the risk of being burned, but the team needs to fabricate an unexpected advantage somewhere to give themselves a crack.
For there to be even the slim possibility of toppling the defensive colossus that is Milwaukee, the Magic are going to need some major individual contributions. Vucevic will have to demonstrate that last year’s playoff failure was a one-time deal; firstly by hitting open shots when presented with the chance and secondly by keeping Lopez’s hands tied deep in the paint and affording the guards some space to operate without his hulking presence only a half-step away. Fournier will have to rediscover his pre-hiatus form, particularly in terms of his outside shot and as a secondary ball-handler. Terrence Ross will have to take advantage of the ever-so-slightly wonkier Bucks’ reserve units, catching fire a few times and relighting the Human Torch moniker. Aaron Gordon will have to both move with purpose and contribute an ancillary source of playmaking. Markelle Fultz will have to prove that the absence of an outside shot isn’t a death sentence in the playoffs.
That’s an awful lot of things that have to happen for the Magic to even have a puncher’s chance, and it’s instructive in terms of just how good Milwaukee’s defense has been this season. With the ball in hand Orlando is going to have to try and excel in some unexpected ways this postseason.
Mitigating Milwaukee’s O
Finding the key to unlock Milwaukee’s vaunted defense is only half of the puzzle facing the Magic. At the other end of the court they’re going to have their work cut out for them trying to figure out how to stop Giannis and Co. from getting buckets of their own. It promises to be almost as difficult a proposition, with the Bucks ranking as the eighth best team on the season in terms of offensive rating with an average of 111.9 points per-100 possessions. In terms of shooting efficiency they’re even better, leading the league with an effective field goal percentage of 55.2% and posting the third-best true shooting percentage at 58.3%.
The Bucks are also among the most prolific when it comes to field goal, three point and free throw attempts per contest, largely a function of their top-ranked pace that generates more than 105 possessions per-48 minutes. They use their ability to stifle opponents on defense to fuel fast break opportunities, with devastating finishers like Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton assisting the team in generating an absurd 15.1% of their total points on the break. And although Milwaukee aren’t the most accurate team when shooting from distance — ranking just 18th with a conversion rate of 35.5% — they have recognized the inherent value of the shot and prioritized it accordingly; the three ball accounts for 42.8% of the team’s total shot diet, a fact largely responsible for the elevated offensive efficiency they enjoy. In short, they get high value shots up and generally make them at a solid clip.
It’s a five-out offensive philosophy that has driven them to regular season domination over the last two seasons, but that also proved fallible last May against Toronto. The lack of a reliable long distance jumper for Giannis may be the only thing keeping him (and, by extension, the Bucks) from being utterly unstoppable, a fact that Kawhi and the Raptors were able to leverage in their favor during the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals. Collapse deep when the time calls for it, stay home on release valve shooters as long as possible, and dare Milwaukee to knock down the ceded mid-range. Could the Magic maybe do the same?
Even with a wild-eyed favoritism for all things pinstriped, it’s difficult to see how Orlando could replicate similar success. That Raptors team was blessed with elite defensive talent all over the floor; the Magic have shown a propensity of late for giving up mammoth scores. Jonathan Isaac’s injury takes away maybe the most interesting potential foil for Giannis, while Gordon and Michael Carter-Williams — two other trusted defenders on the wings — figure to have their effectiveness limited by lingering ailments. The Lopez twins will stretch Vucevic as far away from the hoop as possible, leaving both him ruthlessly exposed for exploitation in pick-and-roll setups and the driving lanes wide open. Middleton is an All-Star assignment beyond Fournier’s defensive pay-grade, a deadly secondary playmaker who benefits from the extra attention his superstar teammate draws. Even Eric Bledsoe, with notably diminished playoff performances on his resume, is likely enticed by the prospective match up with either the inexperienced Fultz or the aging Augustin. Milwaukee project to have advantages all over the floor.
Even some of the presumptive strengths of the Magic seem a little dulled by the offensive profile of the Bucks. Head Coach Steve Clifford preaches the importance of the defensive glass, but Milwaukee aren’t overly interested in chasing extra possessions in that manner anyway. Orlando is pretty good at causing turnovers, but the Bucks already cough the ball up relatively frequently and still manage to score at an efficient clip. How many more would the Magic need to force to tilt this part of the equation in their favor? Milwaukee have even shown improvement this season when finishing in the mid-range, a seeming mark against the strategy that ousted them last year and that the Magic already lean into to some degree.
Unsavory as it is to suggest, the Magic may need to turn to less aesthetically appealing methods if they’re a chance of extending the first round matchup. As a team they normally do an excellent job of keeping the opposition off the free-throw line, but a more physical approach to Giannis in particular might be a more effective way of making him earn his points. The Bucks may get to the charity stripe a lot — 24.7 times a night, sixth overall — but they’re not that accurate from the location, converting at the fourth worst rate in the league (74.2%). In fact, Giannis himself hit just 63.3% of his free throw attempts this season; maybe getting physical in single coverage and daring him to make them is a better idea than letting the shooters bomb away with impunity.
If this feels like grasping at straws, it’s because it is. Milwaukee is a buzzsaw for even the league’s strongest defenses, and the Magic have been a long way from that designation for some time now. Although the team is largely possessed of solid defensive principles, the volatility of recent performances at this end of the court makes it unclear how they’ll fare when faced with the stretchy and swift Bucks. If they choose to meet the shooters on the perimeter Milwaukee will gash the Magic in the two-man game and via lanes to the rim; if they sit back and clog the paint the Bucks will willingly hoist jumpers. What’s a team to do?
Milwaukee will force Orlando to pick their poison, an already tough decision that the injury front makes even more difficult. Gordon figures to have his hands full, while players normally not known for their defensive contributions like Vucevic and Fournier will be asked to tighten things up exponentially. The Magic can’t afford any lapses and will need to be dialed in from the outset each night; even then, it likely won’t be enough. Still, one never says never … just don’t bet your livelihood on it.
Anything is possible?
Again, we come back to the question posed at the outset of this column: can the Magic beat the Bucks? Unfortunately, it’s hard to foresee any future in which such an outcome is even a slim possibility, let alone likely. Orlando are down on troops, out of form, competing at a talent deficit, and possessed of a demonstrated recent history of struggling in these very matchups. Nabbing just a single win during the series would be a monumental accomplishment, and a prediction that only the bravest (or foolhardy) of souls would be willing to put their name to. Milwaukee are the favorites for a reason.
However, as the pinstriped faithful we will watch with at least a sliver of wide-eyed optimism. Squint hard enough and one can see the outline of a strategy and basketball circumstance that could topple the mighty. The Magic must banish any fear of the deer and play as though they have nothing to lose. Because, really, what do they?
It’s time to go down swinging. Even if that is in four.