The Orlando Magic will need to be disciplined and creative when applying a defensive gameplan for arguably the best player in the NBA in Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The Orlando Magic are back.
Not back in the sense of competing for a championship like they were in 1995 or 2009. But back in the playoffs for consecutive years.
And while that might not seem like anything special to most, it is definitely an accomplishment considering how putrid the organization has been for some time.
But now the NBA Playoffs are here and the Orlando Magic face the Milwaukee Bucks, the team with the most regular-season victories this season as their first-round opponent.
The Magic will need key players like Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross to step up and continue to grow in a Playoff role. They cannot shy away from the pressure.
But no one probably has more focus on him than Aaron Gordon. He has the unenviable task of defending Giannis Antetokounmpo for most of the game. Gary Clark and probably James Ennis will likely get their turns too. And defending a MVP is a truly team effort.
Orlando’s top players will have to carry more of the load to find success in the postseason.
This is a great test for a young team, and the Magic coaching staff will have to be creative and disciplined when facing Giannis Antetokounmpo and the snipers from outside.
It will not be easy by any stretch of the imagination. The Bucks are in this position for a reason and have a number of weapons and a strong and disciplined strategy that stifle and frustrate teams.
Antetokounmpo is the likely MVP of the league for the second straight year averaging 29.5 points per game, 13.6 rebounds per game and 5.6 assists per game. And Milwaukee features the best defense in the league, giving up 102.5 points per 100 possessions. The next best team — the Toronto Raptors — are more than two points per 100 possessions worse.
It will not be easy to win. But it can be done. The Bucks did not win the title last year after all and doubts remain whether they can rely so heavily even on a great player like Antetokounmpo and still reach the Finals.
The Raptors formula
That formula did not work last year as the Toronto Raptors erased a 2-0 deficit to reach the NBA Finals. Toronto gave the NBA the blueprint on how to contain Giannis Antetokounmpo in a Playoff series.
Antetokounmpo averaged only 22.7 points, 13.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game in that Eastern Conference Finals series last year. Those numbers were way down from his season (27.7/12.5/5.9) and even playoff averages (25.5/12.3/4.9).
They effectively stifled him.
At first glance, you would think those numbers from Antetokounmpo would be good enough to win a playoff series. But, in fact, they were bounced out in six games.
Toronto played defense on Antetokounmpo differently because they have the personnel too.
The Raptors had two elite defenders in both Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam and were able to pick up Giannis Antetokounmpo on the court before he started to get a head of steam.
With Siakam able to stop the first move, the Raptors did a good job bringing a second defender over to help and cut off the lane to the basket, forcing him to spin back to the middle. The key to slowing Antetokounmpo is to keep him from taking that first step toward the basket and slowing him down, forcing these pivoting actions.
Those extra bodies present walling off the paint forces Antetokounmpo to make decisions. Defending a great player like him is not a one-man job. It requires the entire team to swarm and pressure him.
This is, of course, the basis of the Raptors’ defense.
Pascal Siakam guarded Giannis Antetokounmpo sometimes in the post and they brought a double team with Marc Gasol to force the ball out of Antetokounmpo’s hands and make someone else beat them.
You can see here while Leonard has a good beat on Antetokounmpo, when he is at the top of the key, the four other Raptors players are shading toward the paint and able to collapse and wall up if he gets by.
The Raptors used Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka’s shot-blocking instincts perfectly, giving them free rein to help and crowd Giannis Antetokounmpo. They are skilled and gifted shot-blockers too which helped them time tips and challenges at the rim.
You rarely saw Antetokounmpo take uncontested shots from inside the paint, it seemed like Gasol was right there to challenge every attempt. The team’s level of defensive IQ was off the charts.
The Magic’s gameplan
Toronto certainly had the personnel to execute this defensive gameplan. The Orlando Magic, on the other hand, do not have the defenders the Raptors have but they may play better offensively.
But they can copy some elements of this gameplan.
Steve Clifford and his staff should use Aaron Gordon as the “Kawhi Leonard” who will defensively funnel Giannis Antetokounmpo to the bigs in the paint and create the wall that slows him down.
Since Mohamed Bamba is out for the Playoffs, Steve Clifford will have to use Khem Birch and Nikola Vucevic as the “Marc Gasol” that will help protect the rim. The two will never win Defensive Player of the Year honors but are the only hope for the Magic to keep Antetokounmpo from the rim. They at least need to effectively challenge or turn him without fouling.
Their timing and positioning will need to be on point to slow him down. And that may leave Brook Lopez open for three in some scenarios.
Orlando’s drop coverage on pick and rolls should put Vucevic in at least a decent guarding position to help. But the Magic are nowhere near as physical.
Here Gordon is retreating in transition. He is not holding his line particularly well and Antetokounmpo is able to take up space and get to the rim. But Birch does an excellent job crashing down and gets the block.
Birch’s struggles as a rebounder and ability to make a second jump become apparent here though as Antetokounmpo has pushed Gordon too far under the basket to help on the glass. Antetokounmpo is able to get his own rebound and finish anyway.
But Gordon has done some fair work against Antetokounmpo this year. He is a smart and disciplined defender, especially in big matchups like this. He acquitted himself well in last year’s playoffs against Leonard.
He did well in his one-on-one matchups with Antetokounmpo too.
Antetokounmpo scored 24 points on 8-for-21 shooting, according to NBA.com’s tracking stats.
Gordon does a very good job keeping his body in front of Antetokounmpo and forcing him to turn. Antetokounmpo tried to post Gordon up on several occasions. And each time, it seemed Gordon did a good job forcing a tough shot. His strength on the block seemed to surprise Antetokounmp.
And if Antetokounmpo is posting up, that is a victory for the Magic as he cannot get downhill and toward the basket.
At full health, the Magic should have plenty of bodies to throw at Antetokounmpo.
Jonathan Isaac was at least a part of that matchup. He covered Antetokounmpo in two of those matchups for roughly 5.5 minutes according to NBA.com’s tracking statistics, holding him to six points and 2-for-5 shooting. And the Magic signed Al-Farouq Aminu for this exact kind of matchup.
But this time around the Magic will have to rely almost solely on Gordon as the one-on-one matchup. Gordon is dealing with his own injury as he recovers from a strained hamstring. He is doing more in practice, but he is still not doing any contact drills.
It will still almost certainly take the whole team to slow him down.
The teammate factor
Even with solid defense against him, the Milwaukee Bucks still found a way to score. The only good statistic the Orlando Magic can hold onto was forcing Giannis Antetokounmpo into 4.7 turnovers per game against them this season.
Orlando then seems to do a decent job bottling up Antetokounmpo’s scoring when they have their two primary defenders on him. But the Bucks still flourish with an array of assists. He can still get the ball moving.
The Bucks have proven to have 3-point snipers in the regular season with George Hill (46.0 percent) and Kyle Korver (41.8 percent) Khris Middleton (41.5 percent) all shooting better than 40 percent from downtown.
If they get rolling from deep early it could get ugly with this type of strategy. But the Magic already know they do not have anyone who can defend Antetokounmpo one-on-one consistently.
The Magic will have to be focused in every minute of the series if they plan on extending the series past four games this year.
The coaching staff and players will need to be disciplined in order to win. Clifford and his staff need to implement a gameplan that allows the team to protect the rim while containing Antetokounmpo. The defensive gameplan has to bring ball pressure and have players ready to collapse and wall up the paint.
The best way to try and contain Giannis is to pick him up full court and send an additional defender at midcourt to take the ball out of his hands.
This was the Toronto Raptors’ strategy against the Bucks last year with Kawhi Leonard guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo. The difference is they had better rim protector in Marc Gasol manning the paint when Antetokounmpo would take the ball to the rim.
But the Magic’s greatest defensive asset might be their offense. Making shots is the best way to stop the Bucks’ devastating transition where Antetokounmpo already picks up speed and has a clear shot toward the hoop.
Milwaukee blew out Orlando throughout the teams’ season series based on their fast-break offense. The Magic give up roughly 12 fast-break points per game during the season. The Bucks scored 19 per game against them in the four games this season.
Milwaukee consistently turned missed shots and turnovers into fast-break opportunities.
The Magic will need to play well offensively in order to extend the series. Orlando will lean heavily on its shooters to keep the game from turning into an up-and-down and back-and-forth affair.
The Magic would surely lose any time they do not have the chance to set their defense to slow Antetokounmpo.