The Magic maintained their lead in Game 1 by withstanding every punch the Bucks delivered, and punching right back.
Having taken the shorthanded underdogs too lightly, placing themselves in an unexpected 1-0 hole, the Bucks likely are preparing to counter with a Mike-Tyson-in-his prime right hook to the chin of the Magic.
“That was probably the biggest lesson we learned from last year,” Evan Fournier told reporters following Game 1. “That you have to progress within the series, progress after every game and you get a better understanding of how the other team is playing you.”
So, the question becomes, how equipped will the Magic be to fight back in Game 2? And the answer lies in the sustainability of their gameplan that worked to perfection in securing the bubble’s biggest upset to date.
Can the often unpredictable Magic, a team that has shown an ability to beat the league’s best and lose to its worst, have a repeat performance? They were unable to do so last postseason against the Toronto Raptors after stealing Game 1. That win, however, had some fluky vibes.
The Magic’s victory over the Bucks, while surprising, was convincing.
Steve Clifford wisely followed the trend set by others like Nick Nurse in establishing a defensive wall that sealed off driving lanes and limited or impeded Giannis Antetokounmpo’s penetration in the paint. The Magic were like the Night’s Watch trying to keep the Night King from passing the wall.
The Magic kept the Bucks’ supporting cast outside of the paint, but Giannis at times managed to get through. Once beyond the wall, though, he was mostly unsuccessful. Antetokounmpo, who led the league in points in the paint at 17.5 per while shooting 72 percent on shots from inside five feet of the rim, converted less than half of such attempts against the Magic in Game 1.
Banking on the Greek Freak to be that inefficient at the rim for a second straight game – and on getting to the line just nine times on a day when the Magic commit a season-high 26 fouls – may not be wise. But if the Magic continue to limit those around him, it may not matter. So, they’ll stick with the strategy of building a wall, using a collapsing and physical defense to get Giannis out of his comfort zone, and forcing the Bucks to beat them from the outside, assuming they get in proper position to do so this time around.
One thing that irked me was the Bucks' players not getting to their spots in a timely fashion. The entire Magic defense is back and loading up on Giannis, yet he can't throw it to two of his guys because they aren't a threat. pic.twitter.com/HMP59uQ5fw— Bucks Film Room (Brian Sampson) (@BucksFilmRoom) August 19, 2020
Encouraging also for the Magic is that as impressive as their win was, there remains plenty of room for improvement. They led for the game’s final 45 minutes despite fouling at an unusually high rate, turning the ball over 15 times, and allowing the Bucks 11 offensive rebounds.
A game where Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross are a combined 0-for-7 from three up until the closing minutes of the game (when a then-scoreless Fournier finally hit three triples to seal the win) would usually be recipe for disaster for the Magic. The Magic overcame it thanks to a career-day from Nikola Vucevic, who proved Brook Lopez is no Marc Gasol. Vooch’s outside touch and ability to draw defenders from the paint – along with the deep threat of Gary Clark (4-for-12 from three) and James Ennis (2-for-3) - opened things up inside for the Magic, and in particular, a cutting Ross (18 points).
In order to crack the Bucks’ top-ranked defense, they must be hit where they are most vulnerable: from the outside. Milwaukee regularly collapses into the paint, refusing to allow easy looks inside, but also leaving open space around the perimeter. No team in the NBA this season allowed more three-point attempts per game than the Bucks (39.3 per).
The Magic, 25th in the league in three-point percentage at 34.3 percent, are not exactly built to capitalize on that. But they did in Game 1, going 16-for-41 (39 percent), and it’s imperative they do so again to succeed in Game 2. A better long-range performance from Fournier and Ross will make that much easier.
Another unknown remains in the impact that Aaron Gordon will have in his eventual return from a hamstring injury.
Does AG become a key brick in the defensive wall and help contain Giannis? Does he force up bricks on the offensive end and ruin the Magic’s spacing? The opinions of Magic Twitter are always mixed. But it’s silly to think that having a player like Gordon on the court when the Magic are staring down a player like Giannis is anything but beneficial for Orlando, giving them even more of a fighting chance.