The Bucks are one win away from eliminating the Magic.
Prior to the series we sat down for a Q&A with Mitchell Maurer of Brew Hoop to get his insight on the Bucks. With the Magic now on the brink, we thought it was a good time to check back in to get his impression on the series and the Magic...
OPP: The Magic have been more competitive than most expected (in some games, at least) against the Bucks. What do you think the Magic have done surprisingly well at times against the Bucks?
Maurer: The Magic came into this series knowing two things: they were going to have to play hard the entire time, and they needed to hit their shots. Credit to Steve Clifford to having his guys prepared, even with Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon, Mo Bamba, and Michael Carter-Williams all sidelined.
The Bucks did not, until Game 2, ever demonstrate the level of effort they needed to exert in order to adequately fulfill their responsibilities under Mike Budenholzer’s defensive scheme. Since then, they’ve been gradually ramping up their energy and looked more and more formidable, but Orlando simply never backed down. Last season, when the Bucks played the hapless Detroit Pistons, they didn’t put up a fight. The Magic did (maybe too much), and it showed.
OPP: The wall is not working against Giannis. If he’s getting his in the paint and the Bucks are hitting their threes, what exactly are defenses supposed to do against the Bucks?
That’s the point! The Bucks offense is the basketball equivalent of siege warfare: soften up the opponent by firing from long distance, and use a battering ram to break down the gates. Giannis is going to beat 98% of defenders in an iso situation. If he gets doubled, the Bucks have a stable of willing shooters ready to let it fly from three. Or they can let Eric Bledsoe be a second-side driver. Or they can let Brook Lopez do work down on the block. Or they can get Khris Middleton opportunities to work in the midrange. There are more than enough options, and everybody on the roster knows what their role is and is selfless enough to stay in their lane while maximizing their impact.
The best defense for the Bucks’ offensive approach is to catch them on an off-night. Barring that, let Giannis see the wall and try to shoot over it himself, (sagging off of Eric Bledsoe is another smart tactic) while having somebody shadow Khris Middleton and make his life difficult. The more opportunities the Bucks have to stick to their system, the bigger the Milwaukee lead will grow. And I’m OK with that.
OPP: The Raptors in the playoffs last season completely shut down Nikola Vucevic. Why do you think he has thrived in this series?
Maurer: Nikola Vucevic is a capable scorer at all three levels; he’s obviously a great close-range finisher, but he’s got excellent touch on his jump shot. Since the Bucks sell out to wall off the rim at all costs, bigs like Vucevic often find themselves with plenty of time and space to line up a jumper, whether it’s at the free throw line or behind the arc. If you give an All-Star the ball and say “do what you want,” they’re probably going to drop 30 on you with ease.
The Raptors shut down Vucevic because their defense is flexible and focuses on shutting guys down. The Bucks have let Vuc run wild because their defense is rigid and focuses on shutting areas down. Either way, the process is dependent on execution and the results will be the same if the defense carries out the scheme properly.
OPP: You’ve now seen four games of Markelle Fultz this series, what has impressed you most?
Maurer: I appreciate how you worded the question, because there’s a lot about Fultz to like. One of our most notable commenters wrote as much in our Game 4 Open Thread:
“been impressed with fultz this series...just plays hard, no whining, flopping, or any bs, just cold solid hard basketball, young guy, bright future, would not mind him as a buck along with Giannis some day”
He seems to have a lot of valuable strengths, between finishing at the rim, his midrange game, his perimeter defense, and his functional athleticism. Long story short, the salvage of Markelle Fultz from the Philadelphia 76ers might be a turning point for the Magic.
OPP: You are quite familiar with Magic GM John Hammond. Having watched the Magic this series, what would you be looking to add to this Magic team in the offseason if you were Hammond?
Maurer: Hammond’s M.O. in Milwaukee was to focus on adding talent and length, and worrying about fit later. This helped pull the Bucks up out of the cellar, but left them stuck in the NBA’s middle class, and he rarely seemed like the GM that would bring them up another level. Additionally, he seemed to have a decent handle on adding talent in the frontcourt, but struggled with the backcourt; even today, Milwaukee’s group of guards is probably their weakest unit.
All that said, the clearest path to contention in the NBA is to find a star and build a system around that star. If, for example, Jonathan Isaac is that guy, then you need to surround him with players that accentuate his strengths. More than likely, though, Isaac probably isn’t that Tier A Star that can lead a team through a playoff series (or three), so you’re sort of back at the drawing board when it comes to finding that first piece. Maybe it’s Fultz? What kind of teammates does Markelle need to be successful?
OPP: The Bucks are a win away from a series against another Floridian team. How do they match-up against the Heat?
Maurer: On paper, the matchup is pretty poor for Milwaukee. As we’ve seen over the past two regular seasons and this first-round series, the Bucks are vulnerable when teams hit threes against them. Miami is, in the regular season, 8th in the league in 3PAr (0.419) and 2nd in the league in 3PT% (0.379). The Heat are also littered with young shot-makers; Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn are the type of offensive players that can punish the Bucks’ drop coverage. But even beyond that, Miami has always been a fierce opponent, and their defensive discipline against Giannis Antetokounmpo causes Bucks fans stress like few other teams. With Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo leading the charge against Giannis and Khris Middleton, this second-round series is going to be hectic. I still have the Bucks topping the Heat (in six games), but there is a definite path to an upset.
Thanks again to Mitchell for taking the time to share his insight. Be sure to follow him @Mitchell_NBA and check out all of the great content over at Brew Hoop.