Another year, another Game One upset for the underdog Magic. Despite facing an almost universal belief that they would be lucky to challenge the Bucks in any meaningful way, Orlando were able to take control in the game’s opening minutes and simply never relinquish their grasp over proceedings. A 10-point lead at the first break at one point ballooned to eighteen, remaining in double digits for the majority of the contest and eventually settling at a margin of twelve. How did they do it? Let’s unpack three major factors that stood out when the dust had settled.
A plan on defense
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Magic’s excellent defensive performance is the number of shots they gave up at the rim. On the season they were a team fantastic at denying the opposition shots within five feet of the hoop, conceding just 28.8 attempts per game from that distance (fourth fewest); in Game One, however, they surrendered a whopping 36, a greater number than any team averaged on the season and the second most egregious single-game total of the playoffs to date. Remember, this is a position on the court that teams almost uniformly convert at a rate of 60% or greater from! So why didn’t it end in tragedy against Milwaukee?
The answer features two key components. Firstly, there’s the fact that the Magic made damn sure to limit who they gave these shots to; basically, they took the paint away from any non-Giannis Buck. Of the 36 attempts conceded from this distance Antetokounmpo put up 17, accounting for almost half of the side’s used possessions at the basket. By comparison, players like Khris Middleton, Pat Connaughton, Marvin Williams and Robin Lopez didn’t get a single attempt up from this range; in a normal game you would expect them to combine for at least a half-dozen. Some of this was dogged denial in one-on-one matchups, and some of it was a team-wide commitment to neutering Milwaukee’s fast break chances. In both instances they forced the Bucks away from the middle of the floor.
The second piece of this puzzle is Giannis’ conversion rate on such attempts. Throughout the regular season he was basically Shaq-like around the rim, scoring 7.9 times per game from inside of five feet on a ludicrous field goal percentage of 72.4%. Last night, despite exceeding his average number of attempts by more than six, he had just eight makes at a rate of 47.1%. An area of historical dominance was held to output that can only be accurately labelled as well-below average. The Magic short-circuited the presumptive MVP’s primary mode of feasting.
The eye test suggests that there’s perhaps some element of sustainability to what the Magic achieved. Although they didn’t exactly want to regularly see one of the league’s most dangerous interior players in the paint, they did in fact have a plan of resistance once he arrived there. The initial defender played well off, daring Giannis to shoot from range but also shortening the distance between themselves and the nearest help defender. On any move they funneled him as best they could to the top of the key, where he would be met at the nail by a pair of bodies: his immediate matchup and the nearest help defender, often shoulder-by-shoulder or two deep to apply the brakes to any drive. If he got beyond there it was a full collapse, with anyone in the vicinity digging down to challenge the shot. The end result? Misses, turnovers, and even a blocked shot or two.
The team also made sure to remain physical with their superstar opponent throughout, working hard to remain attached, effectively bump, and generally own the physical space in front of him wherever he went. Giannis only shot nine free throws on the night, although he certainly believed he was entitled to more than that. To the Magic’s credit they played within the confines of the whistles that the officials established, using whatever leniency they could to play with physicality.
The Magic came into this one with a clear defensive plan: control effort plays like defensive rebounding and loose ball recovery, make life difficult for Giannis, and force someone else to beat them with their shooting. For at least one game it worked. It will be interesting to see what head coach Steve Clifford is able to draw up when Milwaukee inevitably responds.
The threat of offense
Is this what modern basketball looks like? For perhaps the first time all season the Magic trotted out lineups that regularly featured four players at least thought of as long-distance shooting threats, with tangible benefits the immediate outcome. Milwaukee are a long and athletic defensive team that like to stay home, anchored by the immovable object patrolling the paint that is Brook Lopez. However, thanks to some early makes Orlando were able to stretch them all the way out to the arc with the threat of their three-point shooting, opening up the middle of the floor for Markelle Fultz to exploit and generating space for Nikola Vucevic to operate in when the team did go inside. The offense was given room to breathe, and increased efficiency was the result.
Crisp passing and purposeful off-ball movement also contributed to the time and space Orlando’s shooters enjoyed. They took full advantage of it, with James Ennis and Gary Clark setting an early tone by knocking down triples. The pair hoisted up a combined 15 attempts from long range for the game, making six and providing the first indication that the contest wouldn’t be following a familiar script. On the night (afternoon?) Orlando attempted 41 three-pointers, converting 16 for a success rate of 39.0%. Both of these figures are well above their regular season averages, and in fact more closely resemble output that the offensive geniuses in Dallas would generate. Although the Magic probably can’t expect to sustain what would be a league-leading three-point accuracy over the rest of the series, they certainly can still dictate how heavily they lean on the deep ball. Game One was proof that tilting certain numbers in one’s favor can also shift the outcome.
The threat of outside shooting also had the benefit of opening things up for those whose radars weren’t locked in. Terrence Ross, normally Orlando’s premier long-range threat, finished the night 0-3 from beyond the arc but was able to exploit the attention Milwaukee paid outside shooters by instead scoring at the rim. On multiple possessions in the final quarter he turned the corner hard after coming over a screen, recognizing that Brook Lopez’s concern for the three-point threat that Vucevic posed meant he wasn’t in a position to drop back to the key. The guards found Ross on the move, resulting in an unimpeded path to the basket for the Magic’s swingman. After successfully pulling this off on two consecutive possessions they then inverted the read, kicking out to a wide-open Vooch for a back-breaking triple when Lopez adjusted and went with Ross. It was a devastating sequence that highlighted the advantage that the mere threat of shooting can provide.
Speaking of Vucevic, it would be remiss to not unpack his career night a little further. He finished with 35 points on 15 of 24 shooting, to go along with 14 rebounds and 4 assists. He connected on 5 of 8 attempts from beyond the arc, and it was his initial willingness and then accuracy with the long ball that discombobulated the Bucks’ defense and minimized Lopez’s usual impact. Vucevic also did a great job punishing some of the mismatches he faced when Milwaukee went small, sealing position at the hoop for easy finishes off lobs when he was fronted, and displaying patience with his positioning and footwork when forced to get his in the post. He even finished efficiently in those tricky ranges of 5-9 and 15-19 feet, scoring at exactly 50% from both distances on a third of his total shot diet. For the first time ever in the playoffs, Vooch played at the All-Star level of which he’s capable.
Playing a role
Vucevic’s numbers are certainly what pops when perusing the boxscore, but his heroics would have been for naught if his teammates happened to no-show. Thankfully they didn’t, with some of the most important contributions coming from players who were undoubtedly deeper down the Bucks’ scouting report. In Game One the role players rolled.
Gary Clark was a key cog, excelling with 15 points, 6 rebounds, and smart plays in a start for the injured Aaron Gordon. He kept the Milwaukee defense honest with 12 attempts from beyond the arc, converting four and establishing an early tone for Orlando. James Ennis wasn’t quite as prolific from deep (going just 2-3), but his final stat line was even more impressive: 11 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and a block in 31 essential minutes. He played with a poise and tenacity that the relatively post-season inexperienced Magic needed. Khem Birch and Wes Iwundu were both also very reliable in their shorter stints on the court, providing energy and direction for the side when Clifford went deeper into the rotation.
Keep in mind also that Clark and Birch both spent a good deal of their game time matched up with Antetokounmpo, an assignment that neither would have thought was in their future when play reconvened after the hiatus. Despite Giannis’ gaudy individual numbers it’s clear that he was made to work incredibly hard for them, testament to the preparation and professionalism of the Magic’s deep rotation veterans.
Orlando are one of the most injury-depleted teams remaining in the bubble, and although some troops are hopefully on the way back they’re going to continue to need major contributions from their battalion of energetic role players. Yesterday everyone came through. Will the same be true in Game Two?
To a casual observer yesterday’s result might seem like history repeating itself. An over-confident favorite failing to fire in the first game and gifting the underdog a single win on their way to a gentleman’s sweep. But closer inspection reveals that this game was won in a vastly different — and potentially sustainable — manner. The Magic didn’t cash in with a wild shooting night. They didn’t benefit from an unusually quiet night by the opposition superstar. They didn’t require a last-second game-winner.
Instead, they executed a game plan born of the necessity of injury, and that just so happened to exacerbate a few of the existing weaknesses of their opponent. A neat trick that got them on the board first.
The question now is whether it was a one-time performance.