Game Three was not a huge amount of fun, either for your Orlando Magic or the pinstriped viewers watching from the comfort of home. After the giddy heights of a first-up ambush and the wary optimism one could talk themselves into after a poor-shooting loss, yesterday’s contest was a clear demonstration of why Milwaukee are the Eastern Conference’s top seed. The Bucks beat the Magic down early, stomping them at both ends of the court as they opened up a 34 point margin mid-way through the third before eventually coasting home.
As the Magic regroup and continue the search for a way to extend this series beyond five, let’s take some time to unpack the factors that were instrumental in dooming Orlando.
While the story of Game 2 was about offense — both Milwaukee’s adjustments to unleash Giannis and Orlando’s wayward accuracy — the key talking point from yesterday’s contest can be found at the other end of the court. It shouldn’t be forgotten, but Milwaukee were the league’s best defensive outfit by a considerable margin on the season. In Game 3 they delivered a potent reminder of why.
From the outset, Milwaukee walled off the paint, having every player away from the ball-handler position themselves only one step from the lane. The integrity of this interior defense was maintained by going under most screens, while Brook Lopez gave Nikola Vucevic almost unfettered impunity to do what he wanted in the space extending from the top of the key. While Vooch got a couple of jumpers to go early he ultimately lacked the outside accuracy needed to really make the Bucks pay, who were consequently able to stay home and lock down the lane.
The combination of drop coverage and help defenders prioritizing the lane rather than their own direct match up almost entirely removed one avenue of scoring for Orlando. Outside of Terrence Ross and Evan Fournier the Bucks sagged back against every Magic player, daring them to shoot and dissuading incisive drives into the painted area by forcing them to navigate a sea of bodies. Orlando simply couldn’t get the ball to the rack, evident in their 13 total shot attempts for the game that came within five feet. Even of these they hit only a paltry half-dozen, a direct result of Milwaukee’s seemingly endless contestation at the rim. That they finished the game with just 26 points in the paint was no surprise.
On the possessions where Orlando decided to change things up and run through Vucevic in the post, Milwaukee adjusted by running a hard double at him as soon as he caught the ball. It stymied the big man’s footwork and kept him away from the glass, forcing him to throw kickout passes back to the perimeter that the team wasn’t able to cash in during the game’s early stretches. The effectiveness of this strategy is most strongly evident in Vucevic’s shot profile for the game; his closest shot attempt for the entire contest came on a six-foot hook from the right block, while more than half of his 11 total misses were the result of three-point jumpers from above the break. On an afternoon when his shooting touch wasn’t white-hot it’s a difficult recipe to overcome.
In general the Magic didn’t really do anything to help themselves out offensively; they played like a team fully aware of how poorly they shot the ball in the last outing and who were desperate to avoid the same outcome. Unfortunately, they were undone by this same urge. The first half revealed a team lacking both patience and discipline, with the result being quick shots and avoidable turnovers.
The majority of early possessions involved sequences featuring only a single pass after the set was initiated in the half court. It spoke of a team desperate to find the bottom of the net, firing away as soon as any sliver of opportunity presented itself. The Magic often retreated into a two-man game, with the other players reduced to passive viewers in the corners and on the wings. Even when the team did aim for something a little more adventurous they forced the issue, throwing a fistful of baffling turnovers as guards picked up the dribble with no idea of where the play was going or by attempting to thread needles that were simply never on. It resulted in a stagnant and ineffective offensive display.
A cursory look at the boxscore might seemingly suggest that Orlando did okay on offense. They shot 44.7% from the field and 47.5% from deep, and were both more accurate from the charity stripe and less turnover prone than their opponent. How bad could things have been? However, one must remember that these numbers were heavily inflated by a second half showing that only rose after the Bucks had taken their collective feet off the gas. When Milwaukee were locked in, the team resembled a whirling dervish of disruptive energy protecting the painted area at all costs. They forced steals, blocked shots, contested everything bar the open threes they willingly conceded, and generally made life miserable for any Magic player that tried to make a hard basketball play.
Any team hoping to beat the Bucks simply has to knock down the outside jumpers they’re afforded. Unfortunately, the Magic probably aren’t the side to make that outcome a reality. Expect more of the same until Orlando can prove otherwise.
The most important spot on the floor
Speak with just about any coach and they’ll tell you that the space immediately surrounding the rim is the most important spot on any basketball court. That belief is perhaps shifting a little these days thanks to the proliferation of the three-point shot, but in most games it’s the team that controls that relatively small section of the court that takes home the cookies. Yesterday the Bucks made sure that they owned both those patches of real estate.
An examination of Orlando’s defense reveals an almost warped inversion of what Milwaukee achieved at the other end. While the Magic could barely sniff the restricted area themselves they instead laid out the red carpet for the Bucks to stroll through the lane, failing to muster any real resistance in the paint in general or at the hoop specifically. The Game 1 wall was well and truly torn down.
Milwaukee feasted on the inside, racking up 50 points in the paint for the game and barely missing an opportunity when they did get there. It was, of course, Giannis Antetokounmpo who led the way, posting a ludicrous 35 points on 12-14 shooting. He was a perfect 10-10 on shots from within five feet, routinely stepping by or through the single coverage the Magic showed him and finishing emphatically at the hoop when the help defense failed to materialize. The reigning MVP is almost assuredly going to get his anyway, but the level of ease that Orlando gifted him bordered on unconscionable.
It wasn’t just Giannis who had a field day in the lane. As a team the Bucks finished 23-for-25 (92%) when shooting from inside of five feet, with one missed Eric Bledsoe layup and a bunny that Lopez put short constituting the entirety of their failures from this spot on the floor. Help rotations were either slow or non-existent for the Magic throughout the game; on multiple occasions players simply stood in no man’s land as the Bucks waltzed on by, neither close enough to assist in corralling the drive nor in a position to close out a shooter if the pass was forced out. Vucevic was also exploited at this end of the floor, with Lopez spending possession after possession in the weak side corner and nullifying Orlando’s center as a deterrent of any sort. It was both sloppy execution and a baffling lack of urgency from a team who needed to bounce back.
Milwaukee were also able to make the Magic pay by pouncing on transition opportunities, particularly on the back of turnovers or long rebounds. Before yesterday’s game, Orlando had done a great job neutralizing this aspect of Milwaukee’s game, keeping both the percentage of total points scored by the Bucks on the back of turnovers and on the break well below their season averages. In the first two games of this series Giannis and Co. generated only 7.2% of their total points on the break, while turnovers contributed 11.3% of their scoring output; in the regular season these two stats combined for almost 30% of all Milwaukee buckets.
In Game 3, however, the Bucks broke free, getting 11.6% of their total points on the break and a whopping 20.7% off the back of Orlando turnovers. These figures were also much higher through the game’s first 30 minutes before the intensity dropped. They’re also another contributing factor to their dominance in the paint, with many of the finishes off such sequences coming at the hoop against a scattered and scrambling Magic defense.
If Orlando is trying to figure out where things went wrong defensively in this one, they have to start with the space immediately surrounding their own hoop. Unless they can build a stouter resistance in the games to come it’s unlikely that anything will change.
The best ability is availability
Although there’s nothing to be done about it, it’s still worth noting who the Magic were missing yesterday. Aaron Gordon and Michael Carter-Williams are both yet to overcome injuries, and they were joined on the sidelines for this game by Melvin Frazier Jr. Elsewhere, Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba and Al-Farouq Aminu remain away from the team as they rehab serious medical concerns. When James Ennis got himself tossed from proceedings it emphasized just how thin the forward rotation is getting on Orlando’s bench.
There’s also no ignoring the case of Evan Fournier, who almost certainly isn’t playing at 100%. He simply has looked nothing like his regular season self in the bubble, even missing a number of the seeding games with an undisclosed illness. It’s a safe bet that he’s still being impacted by that in some major way, a fact that is telling in his play. He’s been bad precisely at the point when the Magic needed him the most.
It’s uncertain whether Orlando can expect any sort of relief on the availability front soon, a situation that could potentially be compounded by a looming Ennis suspension. It’s also simply not a reality that the return of any one player is going to fix the woes currently ailing the team. Still, it would go some way towards bridging the gap of the talent deficit, and makes the likelihood of any upset a minute bit larger. The Magic need some breaks to go their way soon, and an extra body or two would certainly help in that regard.
For the first time Orlando are trailing in the series ledger. Milwaukee have imposed their will on the last two contests, an outcome certainly aided by some lackluster execution from the Magic. We’ll see if they can turn things around when the ball next tips on Monday afternoon.