When Game One ended with a surprising but well-deserved result for the Orlando Magic, the echoes of 2019 were there to be heard by all. For the second year in a row they had stolen the series opener from their more fancied opponent, and the question moving forward was with an eye toward the return matchup. Had the Magic captured lightning in a bottle or was their success merely a flash in the pan?
For one more night, at least, history seemed to repeat itself. On the back of some wayward shooting numbers the Magic fell into a huge hole early, allowing the Bucks to manage the game in the second half and ultimately put them away with comfort. The game bore an uncanny resemblance to Game Two against the Raptors in 2019, with a familiar plot featuring the underdog in retreat and the favorite looking like a class above. Let’s get the autopsy started as we try to unravel how this one played out.
A wayward radar
Okay, we have to talk about it. Any analysis of the game would feel thoroughly incomplete without a dissection of the Magic’s eye-blighting shooting numbers. Let’s get the pain started.
As a team Orlando shot just 34.8% on the night, making only 31 of their 89 field goal attempts. This included an ice-cold 7 of 33 from beyond the arc, good for conversion rate of just 21.2%. Both are obviously incredibly down when compared to the Game One figures, and significantly lower than what the Bucks were able to accomplish at the other end. Remaining competitive is difficult when you allow the opposition to make 11 more total baskets, including a whopping points advantage of +24 from deep. Milwaukee didn’t exactly scorch the nets — 47.2% overall, 36.6% from deep, 1-8 shooting for Khris Middleton, 10-23 for Giannis Antetokounmpo — but they still managed to look like the Globetrotters compared to the Magic’s Generals.
These already ugly shooting numbers also looked considerably worse in the first half, which is when the final result was effectively locked in. It was a discombobulated effort from the Magic, with basically none of the fluency and confidence they displayed in the series opening victory. The ball didn’t move as crisply, outside shooters hesitated or dribbled awkwardly into the mid-range, and any semblance of finishing touch was bafflingly absent. The team closed the first half at 24.4% from the field, including a flabbergasting 1-16 (6.4%) from three-point range. In fact, outside of Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross, no player on the roster had made more than a single basket from the floor. It was one of the most offensively-futile performances that the team has delivered all season long.
I alluded to it earlier, but the most confounding part of the offense in the first half was the team’s complete inability to finish in the paint. It would be easy to get hung up on the horrid three-point shooting, but it was actually much closer to the hoop that the variance between output and expectation was most pronounced. Orlando missed their first 9 attempts in the painted area, repeatedly coming up empty on forays into the lane until Ross finally got a jumper at the elbow to go with 9:48 remaining in the second quarter. As ESPN’s broadcast booth noted, it was the worst start to a game in the paint by any team in the last twenty years. It’s no surprise that the Magic finished with just 24 points total inside the lane, an almost 50% decline on their season average of 45.4 and still a far cry from the 38 they accumulated in the opener.
To their credit, Milwaukee were undoubtedly a stronger defensive outfit last night than in Game One. They were dialed in from the opening tip, playing with an intensity and desire that was missing through much of the series opener. A tone was established in the first quarter, with Brook Lopez barely taking one step out of the paint and the wing defenders employing a careful attention to detail that cramped outside shooting space and disrupted passing lanes. The official tracking data isn’t available at the time of writing, but it’s safe to say that Orlando got nowhere near the 23 wide open three-point attempts they were gifted in the previous contest. A failure to knock such early ones down changed the tenor of the game, and goes a long way to explaining the flipped result.
One of the keys to success for the Magic in Game One was the way that they handled Giannis. The team stuck firm to a plan that dared him to shoot by loading up the interior with defenders, often two or three deep and even positioned shoulder-to-shoulder. The reigning MVP still got his because he’s just that good, but his efficiency was notably down and it ultimately marginalized the effectiveness of his teammates as he was forced into a battle against numbers.
In Game Two both the Bucks’ coaching staff and Giannis himself leaned heavily into the type of play that gave their All-Star centerpiece the best chance of reclaiming the territory he dominated throughout the season. From the game’s opening possessions it was evident that Antetokounmpo would seize any opportunity to attack the hoop before the Magic’s defense was set, pushing the pace in transition and hurtling straight into the key any time a help defender wasn’t positioned at the nail. He got to the rim over and over, and although he once again struggled with his efficiency, it clearly demonstrated how much harder Orlando’s defenders were going to have to work to contain him. There would be no settling for outside jumpers.
On a few occasions the Bucks also employed a slightly different setup that allowed Antetokounmpo to attack the basket from an off-ball position with a full head of steam. Early in the shot clock and coming out of transition they would push the ball to one wing and clear the side out, with a trailing Giannis cutting hard through the paint before any Magic defender could tag him high and before the second line of reinforcements could get set. There was also a pair of sequences that featured a high screen on Giannis’ man as he was coming downhill, a pick that helped to establish the type of separation that makes him nigh on unstoppable.
Other times Antetokounmpo simply got the better of Orlando’s defense. In the second half Orlando had cut into the lead and were threatening to reduce it to single digits. However, Giannis was able to counter by identifying and then exploiting any lazy help defenders, slicing through the wall-like setup a step ahead of the help rotation. The Magic were ostensibly in position, but brought undone by a mistimed head turn or a lazy reach instead of the necessary defensive slide. Giannis also flashed a nasty spin move on a couple of occasions; he would drive hard and draw in both his primary matchup and the first help defender, before spinning into the free space in the opposite direction when the other Magic players decided to ball watch and stay home on their assignment. Orlando had a plan but faltered in their execution.
For stretches of the second half the Magic also decided to throw a hard double Giannis’ way anytime he caught the ball in the post. Milwaukee’s superstar was able to do a solid job of passing his way out of trouble on many of these sequences that threatened to lead to a turnover, finding open shooters spotted up on the perimeter. That they then knocked these down ultimately snuffed out any chance of an improbable Orlando comeback, and spoke of one other small way in which Giannis was better prepared for what the Magic had to throw at him this time round.
It’s almost unfair and a tough ask of any team to cover, but it’s the equation currently facing Orlando. Can they find a way to slow down the reigning MVP? They won the first round with a well-executed gameplan before Giannis countered and reclaimed the ascendancy in Game Two. Now the question is whether or not the Magic have a counterpunch of their own.
Trust the process
It was true in the first game and certainly so again in Game Two, but the Magic are winning the battle of the charity stripe. Orlando has been excellent all year in terms of ensuring that they get more opportunities from the free throw line than their opponents, and last night it was basically the only thing that kept them in the game. They attempted 31 free throws to Milwaukee’s 16, making 27 for an accuracy of 87.1%. For a team not known for its shooting prowess it’s essential that they generate an offensive advantage somewhere, and by both keeping the Bucks off the line and aggressively seeking out contact themselves they’re generating a scenario that has the potential to swing a result. It must continue.
The Magic have also been good at getting the Bucks to cough the ball up, forcing another 20 turnovers in their Game Two loss. Although they didn’t generate as pronounced of a points advantage from this statistic last night — finishing with 16 compared to their 25 Game One total — it was still another area of offensive output in which they outpaced their rival. It’s again an instance where the team needs to trust the process by remaining dialed in and active, and by playing with a physical edge that matches any leniency the referees demonstrate with their whistle. Winning the small skirmishes increases the likelihood of emerging victorious from the war.
Finally, Orlando must get back to being the strong defensive rebounding outfit they’ve proven themselves to be this season. Coming into the series one of the concerns was the size and athleticism of Milwaukee against an under-manned Magic outfit, and whether this would lead to a number of extended possessions and high-percentage second chance opportunities. Early last night that definitely seemed to be the case, but to the credit of the Magic they eventually tightened things up by doing a better job of getting bodies to the glass and playing with a little more physicality. Still, for the game they secured just 70.8% of all available defensive rebounds, a far cry from the 79.1% and fifth-placed finish they established during the regular season. Michael Carter-Williams is an excellent wing rebounder who figures to help should he return, while Aaron Gordon is also possessed of the tools to be strong on the glass (and looks likely to be back sooner rather than later). Regardless of who takes the court, it’s an area that the team must get back to controlling if they’re going to give themselves a chance to extend this series further.
It’s safe to say that Game Two didn’t play out according to any script Orlando had planned. Outside of Vooch the entire team stumbled through a poor shooting night, while their execution of a solid defensive plan was found somewhat lacking on the night. Still, they managed to fight back and at least make it somewhat interesting down the stretch, testament to the team’s improved resilience when compared to last season’s playoff experience.
After landing the first blow the Magic have copped one on the chin from the title-aspiring Bucks. How they respond in Game Three will ultimately reveal much about how this series is likely to play out. Let’s hope on Saturday that they take another swing.