Game Four was a notably different affair from many of the other matchups in the series to date. It remained close and competitive largely throughout, and both sides were playing with a tenacity and effort that was evident through the television screen. Unfortunately for the Magic it didn’t result in the hoped for ending, but it did still reveal much about where they can potentially steal another game. Let’s get the post-mortem underway.
Bonus points for
One of the areas where the Magic were able to generate a small advantage that resulted in extra points was at the free throw line. Although the attempts for the game ended relatively evenly — 20 for Orlando compared to 21 for Milwaukee — through the first three quarters it was actually a pronounced advantage for the Magic: 18 of their own attempts against just 6 for the opposition. Clifford’s men obviously prioritized not fouling, and with three-point shooters like Terrence Ross and Evan Fournier taking advantage of overzealous defenders at the other end, they were able to create a handy advantage on points at the charity stripe that helped keep them in the thick of things through the game’s early stages. Going into the final frame they had outscored Milwaukee 14-6 from the free-throw line.
After some tough shooting performances in the previous two games, Orlando also received a much needed boost from deep in the first half. The Bucks continued to employ the defensive strategy of overloading the paint, and this time the Magic were able to make them pay. The ball moved freely and passes were delivered decisively, affording the likes of Gary Clark, Nikola Vucevic and a slumping Fournier the time and space needed to set their radars. As a team Orlando went 10-21 from long-range across the opening 24 minutes, using the boost over their regular production to keep pace with the superior interior scoring of their opponent.
Markelle Fultz was instrumental in this uptick in long-range efficiency, and not just because of his own shooting (which started 2-2 before a pair of late misses); he was able to duke his way into the heart of the Bucks’ interior resistance, drawing defenders and then sending the ball back out to waiting shooters who were, at most, only a hockey assist away. It was a strong bounce back performance from the young guard who had struggled mightily to make a mark in the previous outing. His play, along with the accuracy of his teammates, provided the side with an advantage in efficiency that they needed to keep the margin close.
Unfortunately for the Magic, both of these factors fell out of their favor in the final frame. Milwaukee marched to the free-throw line 15 times in the game’s last 12 minutes, producing a steady stream of points that helped to keep Orlando at bay. By comparison, the Magic were only able to draw one shooting foul, with Vucevic sinking a pair of free throws late in proceedings. The Bucks were also able to knock down 5 of 7 long-range attempts during the stretch, including their first four of the period in a sequence that ultimately broke the back of the Orlando team. It was a shooting efficiency those in pinstripes couldn’t match, ultimately connecting on 5 of their own but requiring 15 attempts to do so.
Through much of the game’s first three quarters the Magic received a timely injection of points from efficient spots on the floor. It’s no surprise that when these dried up they saw the contest slip away.
Bonus points against
At the other end of the court there were also a small handful of important factors that also impacted the steady accumulation of points, this time in a manner that made things more difficult for the Magic. One of these elements was the size and athleticism of the opposition, a recurring issue for them on the defensive glass throughout the series. In Game Four it was again no different.
Giannis and the Bucks got their hands on 8 offensive rebounds on the afternoon, a sizable number that accounted for 23.5% of all such opportunities. It was evident from the opening tip that this would be a problem, with Milwaukee extending their first two possessions of the game after Orlando failed to corral the errant shots and end the sequence. That they didn’t score on either opportunity shouldn’t result in these possessions being considered a win for the Magic; the process is often more telling than the results of any one individual moment in a game. Facing off against a deeper and more talented opponent in this series, Orlando simply must minimize the number of opportunities they provide them with to inflict scoreboard damage.
Turnovers were another aspect of the game that ultimately resulted in the gifting of too many easy baskets to the opposition. The Magic were careless with the ball, coughing it up on 16 different occasions that Milwaukee were able to turn into 17 points. It helped to power their transition game, with Giannis and Eric Bledsoe routinely attacking a spaced out floor before Orlando could get defenders back behind the ball. It contributed to their continued dominance in the paint, and made the hill the Magic had to climb that much steeper.
In the modern game an empty possession pounced on by an opponent regularly results in a swing of four to six points: two or three gone begging and the same again added to the other side of the ledger. Doing so too many times is usually always a recipe for disaster, let alone against a team as devastating at finishing as the Bucks. Orlando can’t afford to give Milwaukee more opportunities to nail the coffin shut.
Where the game was lost
The biggest takeaway from this game will ultimately be that despite being a genuine chance of winning, the Magic were unable to seal the deal at the close of business. After Ross tied the game at 81-apiece on a third free-throw, Orlando surrendered a poorly contested triple to Giannis as the final seconds of the third quarter slipped away. It served as the bucket that kickstarted a devastating run that would slam shut any chance of an upset.
(A close examination reveals that the close of quarters were generally tough for the Magic. Inside of the last thirty seconds of each of the first three periods they surrendered a total of 11 points, while getting only 6 themselves. Many of these were the result of an inattention to detail, and it could have been even more costly had Kyle Korver converted a long range bomb off the back of an inbounds turnover. Giving up the final bucket of each quarter sapped momentum, and again increased the degree of difficulty of the task at hand.)
Over a stretch of 4:55 that spanned the close of the third and opening minutes of the fourth quarters Orlando conceded a 21-2 run that proved decisive. The Bucks hit 5 triples during the stretch, and in fact had only one finish at the hoop despite largely living in the paint the whole series. Khris Middleton was the main cause of the damage, shaking loose and busting out of his recent slump by accounting for 11 straight Milwaukee points and racking up an abusive 18 total in the period. In contrast the Magic went 0-5 from deep during this stretch, also clanking a pair of other mid-range jumpers and fumbling away two other possessions on inbounds turnovers (classic Orlando). Pinstriped ballhandlers barely put a foot in the paint during the run, accelerating the game towards the make or miss proposition it became. The Magic missed.
There were some spurious tactical decisions made during this game-deciding sequence. No coach likes to mess with their rotations, but in the cauldron of playoff basketball necessity is often the mother of invention for successful teams, and the Magic were in dire need of some advantageous decision making. Vucevic went to the bench with 2:10 remaining in the third and the team facing a one-point deficit; when he returned 91 seconds into the fourth that margin had swelled to 9. Orlando would get closer than that only twice more for the game, both on shots made by Vooch.
Similarly, the decision to leave James Ennis on the sideline likely cost the team dearly. One of the reasons that Middleton has had such a poor series is because of the good work Ennis has put in while defending him, cramping his space and fighting through off-ball action designed to spring the All-Star free. Ennis checked out of the game about halfway through the third quarter, and didn’t return until only four minutes and change remained. It’s no coincidence that Middleton had 16 of his decisive points during this time.
There were other choices that also likely played a part. Fultz was having an excellent game, but he too spent a fair chunk of the decisive fourth quarter on the bench as Clifford went with the shooting threat and veteran hand of DJ Augustin. It didn’t work, with last year’s Game One hero failing to attempt a shot and only generating two assists for his teammates. It’s certainly no guarantee that Fultz would have produced better results, but he certainly did seem to represent an increased chance of winning based on his play through the first three quarters.
It’s easy to second guess things after the fact, particularly from the comfort of the couch. But an NBA coach has to be both adaptable in the micro and accountable in the macro. Yesterday it definitely felt like the Magic brains trust didn’t always make the right decision when the game hung in the balance.
While the chance of a momentous upset now seems positively minuscule, the Magic will still have one more opportunity to extend this series further. If they’re going to do so it will require a victory on the margins and the eking out of extra points wherever possible. For much of Game Four they proved it’s possible. Can they now extend that over 48 full minutes?