Making their second straight playoff appearance, the Orlando Magic were big underdogs against the top seeded Milwaukee Bucks, going into Tuesday afternoon’s contest as 14 point underdogs. Add in the fact they were missing three key rotational players, two of which started throughout the season, and it seemed like tall odds for the Magic.
Despite everything that was seemingly piling up against them, the Magic came out firing early, and controlled the game against the Bucks, taking a shocking 1-0 lead.
This is a position the Magic are familiar with after they took a 1-0 lead in their first round series against the Toronto Raptors last season. The Magic proceeded to lose the series in five games, but showed some potential signs of being able to push the Bucks a little further this year.
There was a lot to take away from their impressive game one victory, but these three stuck out the most.
Nikola Vucevic’s world
After struggling in his maiden voyage into the playoffs last season, Nikola Vucevic made noise in a big way against the Bucks in game one. From the start, Vucevic looked comfortable, knocking down a set of jump shots to help the Magic to their early 10-point lead.
It didn’t stop there for Vucevic, who picked apart Milwaukee all afternoon, en route to a playoff career-high 35 points and 13 rebounds. The USC product showed off all of his offensive tools, knocking down five three’s, scoring in the paint, and knocking down the mid-range jumper.
Simply put, it was a tale of two years for Vucevic, who looked flustered and was never able to get anything going in the Magic’s first round loss to Toronto last season.
Vucevic also made an impact on defense, holding Brook Lopez to just four points on 2-of-9 shooting. He also helped the Magic wall off the painted area, a key that allowed their defense to slow the high powered Bucks down all afternoon.
With Aaron Gordon out, the Magic needed Vucevic to step up, and he did in a big way. Now they need him to keep up his high level of play, not only for the period of time that they’re short handed, but also when Gordon returns to the lineup.
Forming of a wall
By now everyone has seen the video of former Magic, Heat and Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy imploring his team to “Build a f***ing wall” while coaching the Pistons. Well, the Magic took a page out of Van Gundy’s book and built a f***ing wall against the Bucks on Tuesday afternoon.
Orlando’s defense had energy and crispness to it that it hasn’t seen consistently all season. Guys were going for loose balls, challenging seemingly every shot, and keeping the Bucks, and most importantly, Giannis Antetokounmpo out of the painted area.
Their ability to force Milwaukee into mistakes — the Bucks turned it over 16 times on the day — and turn them into points — Orlando scored 25 points off those Milwaukee turnovers — also gave them a big boost.
The performance on the defensive end is a welcoming sign for the Magic. They showed signs of being the same team that they were on that end at the end of last season when they took the league by storm, finishing with the best defensive rating in the league over the seasons second half. They also did it without, arguably, their three best defenders in Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon and Michael Carter-Williams, as well, which makes the performance that much more impressive.
Orlando will likely get Gordon back for game two, which will just shore things up on that end, and give them their best perimeter defender again. If they’re able to continue to play with the same energy and activity level in the coming games, they could make life even tougher on the Bucks.
One of the most impressive things the Magic did all day was punch back whenever Milwaukee would make a run. They never let the Bucks impose their will and take over the game, something they’ve struggled to do for years, and struggled to do in their seeding games in the bubble.
Coming out of halftime, the Bucks started quick, cutting the Magic’s 10-point halftime lead down to three with a 9-2 run. Giannis, along with Erice Bledsoe, got to the basket, and made the Magic pay.
Khris Middleton cut it down to one after making two of three from the free throw line, but a big three from Vucevic pushed the Magic’s lead back to four, the lowest it would be the remainder of the game.
Before when they would take punches, the Magic, more often than not, would crumble; teams would see blood in the water, and pounce on them. Milwaukee was unable to do that on Tuesday, never being able to respond when the Magic would throw an even bigger punch right back.
Being able to withstand runs, and answer back is a step the Magic haven’t fully taken in their continued rebuild, and if they’re able to do that consistently in this playoff series, it would be a welcome sign of growth.