Orlando Magic Playoff Preview: Orlando Magic struggled with Milwaukee Bucks in 2020

The Orlando Magic struggled to keep up with the Milwaukee Bucks, often blaming their own execution and toughness in the four defeats. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic struggled to keep up with the Milwaukee Bucks, often blaming their own execution and toughness in the four defeats. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic had a good gameplan to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks. But in all four games this year, the Bucks blew that up quickly and dominated.

The headline should be a “well, duh” statement. Everyone in the league struggled with the Milwaukee Bucks. That is why they have the best record in the NBA, not that homecourt advantage will mean anything when we get to the Eastern Conference Finals or the NBA Finals.

But nobody has to worry about their matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks except for the Orlando Magic at this point. And so, as much as we can, we have to look back at the history between these two teams in the 2020 season to get some clue — or as a reminder — of just how these teams match up.

To be sure, even if the Magic had been successful against the Bucks in the regular season, it would be a tall order to ask the 8-seed to defeat the top seed in the league. While there have been 8/1 upsets the other times the league had to shorten its season in 1999 (the New York Knicks defeated the Miami Heat) and 2012 (the Philadelphia 76ers defeated the Chicago Bulls after Derrick Rose’s injury), this is going to be a big ask for the Magic.

And that task was made a lot taller and more difficult when Jonathan Isaac went out with a torn ACL.

As Steve Clifford said after a practice last week once the Magic clinched a playoff berth, to play against either of the top teams in the Eastern Conference will require a roster as close to full health as possible to win the series.

The Magic will not be at full health for sure.

It is not just losing Isaac. But also being without Al-Farouq Aminu, who was signed specifically to have another big body to throw at a player like Giannis Antetokounmpo. They are also nursing injuries with Aaron Gordon (strained hamstring), Evan Fournier (non-COVID illness), Michael Carter-Williams (strained tendon in his foot) and Terrence Ross (quarantine after leaving the campus).

All four appear set to return before Game 1 on Tuesday. But they will have gone nearly a week without playing beforehand.

Orlando it seems is already starting at a deficit. And the Bucks are simply not the team to play catch-up on.

And this is just a matchup that did not work for the Magic this season.

The Season Series

The Milwaukee Bucks swept the Orlando Magic in the four-game season series, winning by an average margin of 17.0 points per game. Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged 26.3 points, 15.7 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game in three meetings with the Magic this season. He dominated every aspect of the game.

But that was the regular season. And that has only so much value with teams now focused for days on end to stop basic sets. The Playoffs are indeed a different animal.

"“We didn’t play very well in those games,” Nikola Vucevic said of the Magic-Bucks matchup after Thursday’s game. “I don’t think we will carry anything from those games. They are a very good team. They play very well. For us, a playoff series is different than when you play a team in the regular season. They are going to be very well prepared. We are going to have to be very well prepared. Their approach is different as well. You can’t compare it to a regular-season game. We lost all four game sand we didn’t play well against them. It’s different now and we’re going to do our best to try to beat them.”"

Still, there are plenty of things to learn from that game tape. They are not fully instructive, especially since most of those games happened so early in the season. But patterns emerged from each of those four games that Orlando is still trying to resolve.

The first matchup in early November was a 123-91 shellacking. An early sign of the Magic’s struggles and slow start to the season. Orlando found it difficult to do even the simple things in the loss as the Bucks defense ground them to a halt, ultimately pulling away under the weight of the Magic’s errors.

But more stunningly, the Magic started that game off well. They took a 13-point lead before slowly losing their composure. A technical foul on Gordon seemed to inspire Antetokounmpo’s brilliance in that game. The Magic’s best players could not right the ship at that early stage of the season.

They will be the biggest focus within this series.

The second matchup in early December went a bit better — a 110-101 defeat and the closest margin of defeat in the four-game series. But that score was closer than the game actually was. The Bucks had control of the game throughout and took another early lead, requiring a Terrence Ross scoring burst to narrow the deficit.

It is hard to draw much from this game too because Jonathan Isaac was still in the lineup and Nikola Vucevic was out of the picture with his sprained ankle. While the Magic fought hard to get back into the game, they needed Vucevic’s consistent scoring effort to win. These kinds of games were where the Magic missed their star player.

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It was clear early on Orlando needed to be at full strength to have a chance against a team at its absolute best.

The return trip to Milwaukee in late December produced a similar 111-100 defeat. Orlando again had to rally from a deep deficit to make it a game. But the Bucks’ bench won the day with Ersan Ilyasova, Donte DiVincenzo and Kyle Korver hitting big shots to frustrate the Magic.

At this point in the season, the Magic’s bench was still figuring itself out. “Breaking the lineup,” as coach Steve Clifford has called it, has been an iffy prospect for this team. He has struggled to find the right playing groups to maintain rotational balance. And that was a big part of the Bucks being able to grow big leads consistently.

The final matchup in February is likely the closest thing to draw from with Isaac out of the lineup. The Bucks won that game very similarly, growing a big lead (27 points!) and holding off a third-quarter rally in a 111-95 win.

Again, the Magic’s struggles to stand up to one of the best teams in the league fell on the team’s best players. They did not execute early on and seemed to give in to frustration. They only right the ship after that initial punch.

Quite simply, the Magic needed to play better in all facets. They did not have consistency, going through some deep lulls. Those lulls are what cost the team and what they cannot afford in the postseason.

Pieces of the gameplan

The Orlando Magic’s gameplan on Giannis Antetokounmpo is a solid one. They have a smart and focused defender in Aaron Gordon who can stand up to Giannis Antetokounmpo physically and make his forays into the paint difficult. The Magic do a good job peeking into the lane and forming a wall to keep him from the basket.

Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee Bucks /

Milwaukee Bucks

But they do not execute this well all the time. Orlando has had its struggles defending the 3-point line, and especially against Milwaukee. The Bucks shot 37.2 percent on 3-pointers in four games this year, making 15.3 3-pointers per game.

And the Bucks tend to destroy the Magic in transition.

When Orlando misses shots, Milwaukee pounces and runs immediately on them. The Bucks scored 14.8 points off turnovers and an astounding 19.3 fast-break points per game in the four games this season.

The Magic gave up 11.9 fast-break points per game this season, the fourth-fewest in the league.

To be sure, the Magic will need to make shots — an obvious statement. They will need to run an efficient offense where they are scoring but also not turning the ball over or giving up rebounds that lead directly to breaks. Stopping fast breaks may be the difference between having a shot to compete in the series and getting blown out regularly.

But, most importantly, the four previous matchups with the Bucks showed the Magic will need to get off to stronger starts. They will need to maintain intensity and be more precise with their decisions.

Against this Bucks team, everything adds up. And when the whole is Antetokounmpo running against you, that can be a bad problem for a defense.

Next. Orlando Magic struggling to defend the 3-point line. dark

The Magic learned that firsthand in four losses this season. Luckily, this is a new season now.