The end has come again.
In a manner that is surface-level similar to any observer, the 2020 season draws to a close for the Magic much as the previous campaign did, with a five-game series loss in the opening round of the NBA playoffs. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
After stealing the opener from their more-fancied opponent Orlando were outscored by a cumulative 58 points over the final four contests, losing in a remarkably consistent fashion: 15 points, 14 points, 15 points, and then yesterday again by 14. But this series was a closer affair than the corresponding games against Toronto last year, with the Magic making the Bucks genuinely sweat on a handful of occasions. This extended to Game Five, which featured a deficit that at one stage peaked above 20 cut to just a single bucket with minutes to play.
However, it wasn’t to be. Injuries and the talent deficit once again caught up with Orlando who, despite demonstrating a resolve that simply never emerged last year, were ultimately unable to stop Milwaukee from imposing their will on the final scoreline. When the dust settled it was a different showing but the same result, with an offseason of some uncertainty the Magic’s reward. Before we get to those discussions in the months to come though, let’s unpack how this one went down.
A broken record
The familiarity of the game’s final result was ultimately arrived at via a series of equally familiar factors. Areas exposed as a weakness throughout the series remained so yesterday, with neither the necessary execution or unforeseen adjustment arriving in time to flip the outcome for Orlando.
The Magic have generally been solid in terms of ball control during this series, regularly finishing games with less turnovers than the opposition and maintaining numbers roughly in line with their very good season averages. However, against the Bucks they’ve been undone by untimely sequences of carelessness, an ill-afforded circumstance considering the already thin margin for error against a talented foe. Game Five was, unfortunately, no different.
Orlando finished the night with just 11 turnovers, a more than respectable number against one of the league’s most disruptive and stingy defenses. It’s when one more closely examines these giveaways in the flow of the game, though, that their obstructive nature can be seen. The Magic failed to reach the end of 6 separate possessions in the first quarter, including an unconscionable 5 in the first 5:38 of game time alone. These miscues allowed the Bucks to double-up Orlando early, jumping out to a 7 point lead despite cold shooting and turnovers of their own. It’s a particularly meaningful observation in light of the fact that this was a game in which, outside of the opening basket, the Magic never led. The hole was dug early.
Further exacerbating the situation was the collective shooting inaccuracy of the team during the game’s early stages, particularly from deep. Orlando opened 0-8 on three-point attempts across the first ten minutes, finishing the quarter 2-11 from beyond the arc after Wes Iwundu and Terrence Ross finally got something to go. From that point the side actually converted at almost 50% from deep (13-30), including a late flurry that got them well and truly back within striking distance. It was, however, again too late, with the damage of the contest’s early inaccuracies simply being too much to overcome. The Magic really needed to be perfect if they were going to beat the Bucks and, as the early wayward rader demonstrated, they were not.
Another area that has haunted the team throughout the series is their inability to take away the painted area. Although yesterday wasn’t quite as egregious in this regard, the interior dominance of Giannis Antetokounmpo once again reared its ugly head to contribute to the Magic’s downfall. Milwaukee’s superstar made 11 shots on the night, 8 of which came from inside the arc. Of those 8, an absurd total of 7 were the result of dunks, layups and bunnies at the rim. He owned the lane.
Giannis routinely put the ball on the floor and attacked the hoop, knifing through the above-the-break defense Orlando threw at him and marching into the paint. The Magic did a pretty sloppy job of sealing the nail, with the help defender often a step too slow on the required rotation or choosing to swipe at the ball instead of sliding the body into place. Anteteokounmpo is likely going to secure a second MVP partly because of his ability to dominate this area of the court, but Clifford’s men simply weren’t as crisp as they needed to be in this regard — particularly after having proved themselves capable of such earlier in the series.
If it seems like we’ve been dissecting the same things after many of these games it’s because we have. Milwaukee is a top seed coming into the playoffs on the back of a dominant regular season, having toppled all manner of teams this season in these exact same ways. As for Orlando’s side of the equation, they’ve long been an inconsistent outfit with some difficulty getting the ball to go into the bucket when needed.
Both of these descriptors rang true again in Game Five, reading like a microcosm of the broader seasons at large. To Orlando’s credit they didn’t resign themselves to the expected outcome, instead demonstrating a greater level of grit and resilience than they did in 2019 and fighting back into the contest. From the perspective of a Magic fan the series result is disappointing, but eminently understandable. They may have been pound for pound outclassed, but at least they went down swinging.
A losing stretch
Game Five’s back-breaking sequence actually arrived early, taking place across a two minute stretch in the second quarter. The Magic had just tied things at 31-apiece on the back of a Ross triple, a seemingly positive sign for a team that had come perilously close to being out of it in the opening frame. The side was ultimately unable to maintain the momentum though, watching the margin blow out as the game and series slipped away for good.
After the teams traded a couple of empty possessions, Giannis started the damage with a three-point play on the back of an emphatic dunk and drawn foul. Crisp Milwaukee ball movement sent the Magic defenders scrambling, and Khris Middleton was able to find the superstar all alone in the key after Gary Clark collapsed to take away his driving lane and DJ Augustin failed to rotate to the danger man. It was a good basketball play, but one that Orlando could have contested more effectively.
Orlando’s next possession was relatively stagnant, with the result being a misfired contested mid-range jumper from Nikola Vucevic. Milwaukee extended their subsequent sequence when Giannis drew a foul on a long offensive rebound, capitalizing with a Brook Lopez triple from above the break out of the ensuing inbounds. The shot was alarmingly uncontested, with an inattentive Vooch failing to tag the Bucks’ big man as he spotted up and the inbounds defender doing little to take the pass away. The lead was back to a half-dozen.
Augustin followed this up by missing a good look at a layup that he put a touch too high on the glass, the result of worry over a rotating Lopez. More concerning, he was the only Magic player to touch the ball on the possession, a reflection of the stagnation that can afflict the team during costly stretches. Giannis then punished this empty trip with an elbow jumper at the other end, the result of a switch that saw Vucevic facing Milwaukee’s forward and only tentatively closing his space as he settled in for the jump shot.
That bucket sent the Magic to the bench to listen to coach Steve Clifford, but things didn’t go their way coming out of the time out. Fournier got a solid look out of a neat passing sequence but misfired on the three-point attempt, before Middleton went the other way and patiently generated a sweet little baseline jumper. It’s been said before and undoubtedly will be said again, but it’s a make or miss league. This pivotal sequence was capped with yet another stark reminder of just such, with Nikola Vucevic missing an open three-point attempt that the Bucks were then able to convert into a triple of their own only six seconds later. Eric Bledsoe’s bucket — which, it must be noted, occurred after no guard picked him up in transition — capped a 13-0 run in just 1:46 of game time, a costly sequence that engorged a deficit the Magic would never totally reel in.
It’s not that the Magic were horrible during this stretch. They were a little sloppy, sure, but it wasn’t the type of basketball eyesore that’s often evident when a game is being broken open. Instead, it was merely a decisive reminder of the gulf between these two sides. Orlando were below their best for much of the first half, and eventually they were made to pay.
Bigger than basketball
Of all the takeaways from this series, the most important undoubtedly has nothing to do with the on-court product at all. For many the hope was always that the dialogue and sentiment that would emerge from the NBA’s return to play could lead to substantial, lasting, and long-needed change. The events surrounding Game Five make that feel like something closer to a genuine chance than ever before. For their part, the Magic have been able to contribute to the amplification of the intended message.
For the longest time sports has been thought of by many as merely escapist entertainment, disconnected from the social, economic, cultural and political concerns that permeate our communities. It was, to be honest, a pretty naive view of things, willfully ignorant of the individual and collective experiences that those involved in the sport represent. On Wednesday, Orlando was a part of an important step towards the solidification of player empowerment as a tool for progressive change.
Although it was the Bucks who made the initial stand, the Magic were quick to align in solidarity with their peers and the message that was being brought into sharp focus on both a national and global level. By following suit and choosing to step away from the court, each of the playoffs’ remaining teams were able to make a clear statement about the need for serious reform in response to the social injustice and police brutality experienced by the African American community. It already feels like a catalyzing moment, and the wheels of change appear to be in motion. The players have helped to make such a circumstance possible, wielding their platform and profile as a tool for progress.
Undoubtedly a season unlike any other, the same could also be said for the year 2020 in general. Professional athletes were already role models to many, gifted individuals whose feats were to be admired and aspired to. However, the last week has served as an important reminder that these players also possess the inspirational ability to be the leaders our communities so sorely need. For the Magic the season may be over, but the real work has only just begun. The time for change is now.
And with that, we’re done. Orlando’s 2020 season is now officially in the books, with a similar finishing point to last year’s drought-breaking campaign. The time to reflect on the past and then project the future will soon come, but for now we await the conclusion of this postseason with the hope that 2021 will instead be the Magic’s year.