The Orlando Magic know they have a big challenge against the Milwaukee Bucks. But winning starts with doing the things that define them well.
Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford sometimes bristles at postgame questions when he is asked to detail what masterful adjustments he made or tweaks he made to spur the team to victory.
Sure, there might be some tactical changes. But Clifford deflects and says really the responsibility lies with the players.
When a team turns itself around within a game or elsewhere, what actually happens is quite simple: The team plays better.
That is probably an oversimplification. But there is always some truth to it. The team started making shots or executing its sets with more intensity. They might rub off a screen the right way or take advantage of fast-break opportunities.
They probably just executed the gameplan better or did the little things that may not show up in a box score that turned the game around.
There is something to this line of thinking, of course. As simple as it might be.
When everything goes wrong or a team is facing a truly difficult opponent, it is not the fancy adjustment or anything else they need to execute to get themselves out of it. It is the simple things. The basic tenets of the team’s foundation and success that gets them out.
The playoff test
A team has to be able to do the things it usually finds simple at a higher level in order to win. With defenses loaded up and understanding exactly what is coming, it is these simple things — these foundations of a team’s identity — that coming under fire.
To win in the playoffs, a team has to do these things despite the adjustments and pressure an opposing gameplan puts on them.
“Everything matters. It’s not one thing,” Terrence Ross said after practice Saturday. “You can’t really look at it in the sense of you can focus on one thing. You have to focus on everything. You have to be perfect to win. That’s going to be the challenge to make sure we can actually apply what we learn in practice and apply it to the court. It’s going to take everything, not just our core focuses. It’s going to take everything to win.”
To be sure, that becomes more difficult with better competition. And the Orlando Magic drew the most difficult challenge in playing the Milwaukee Bucks, the team with the best record in the NBA at 56-17.
That actually gave the Bucks the ability to coast through the seeding round games. And they did not seem too thrilled with how they played. There might be some desire to sharpen their focus now that the postseason begins.
This will be a team very motivated to play well and rediscover what made them such a dominant team throughout the course of the regular season.
That will only make things more difficult. But the Magic’s focus will be on themselves. They will try to execute their game plan and do their little things to their fullest extent. That is their only chance at winning.
“I think when you are playing the kind of a team like Milwaukee, every little thing matter down to the pressure on the side out of bounds and knowing our assignments,” Gary Clark said after practice Saturday. “It will come down to who studies better and who is more prepared. From the beginning of my career, I have prided myself on doing the intangible things to give my team the edge to win.”
Indeed, each game might turn on winning a loose ball or tracking down a rebound. The Magic have to know who they are and commit to their identity and personality. That will be the biggest key against the Bucks.
The Orlando Magic got Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross back for practice on Saturday. The duo had been out since last week with illnesses. Ross just cleared quarantine Saturday after leaving the bubble to get tested after suffering what he described as a spasm in his esophagus resulting from a bad case of heartburn.
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Aaron Gordon did not participate in the contact portion of practice. But Clifford said he is getting closer to his return. He went through the game planning and walkthrough portion of practice.
Michael Carter-Williams remains in a walking boot and further away from the others in getting back to the court.
To be sure, the Magic will be better off having those players available. They are all more than capable of making the kinds of plays the Magic will need to eke out wins.
Sticking to their guns
The most important thing then for the Orlando Magic is to be good at the things they are good at anyway.
“I told our guys today, the things that we have been good at — rebounding, defensive rebounding in particular, the turnover game and we have to win the free-throw game which will not be easy,” Steve Clifford said after practice Saturday. “Those are the things we have to do to give ourselves a chance. They’re hard. They’re terrific on offense and they are the best defensive team in the NBA by quite a bit. We have to play well on both ends of the floor.”
This is where the Bucks have done the best job against the Magic this season. They have taken Orlando out of the team’s natural flow and what they do best.
Orlando ranked fifth in the league in defensive rebound rate at 74.9-percent (including seventh since the season restarted at 75.7-percent despite giving up some key offensive rebounds). But against the Bucks this year in four games, the Magic had only a 71.6-percent defensive rebound rate.
Granting the small sample size, the Bucks had their fourth-best offensive rebound rate against the Magic compared to other teams in the league.
Turnovers are also a big piece of the Magic’s puzzle. Orlando ranked 10th in the league with an 11.7-percent turnover rate (up to 14.3-percent since the season resumed but still 10th).
More importantly, the Magic rank fourth in the league, giving up 11.9 fast-break points per game this season. Since the season resumed, Orlando dropped to 16th in the league giving up 13.5 fast-break points per game.
This was a big part of the team’s struggles since the season restarted. Turnovers and missed shots often led to fast breaks, burying the team in some deep holes.
Orlando did not turn the ball over more against Milwaukee. The team’s turnover rate remained at 11.7-percent in the four games against Milwaukee. But the Magic gave up far more fast-break points.
The Bucks scored 19.3 fast-break points per game against the Magic in four games this season. This certainly suggests Milwaukee took live-ball turnovers and turned them immediately into points. Although other factors — such as missed shots and poor shot selection — certainly could have fed the Bucks’ break.
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In any case, this kind of play is out of character for Orlando and something the team has to limit. It was a weakness in the Magic’s foundation the Bucks exploited in four games this season.
The Magic are not a high free-throw shooting team. But they have been good at preventing free throw attempts.
Orlando gives up 19.8 free throw attempts per game, the fourth-fewest in the league this season. Since the season restarted, they give up 25.3 per game. That is down to eighth, but fouls are up significantly around the league since the season resumed.
This might have been the one thing the Magic did well against the Bucks. Milwaukee averaged only 16.8 free throw attempts per game in four games against Orlando. If the Magic keep Giannis Antetokounmpo off the free-throw line, they will have a better chance at winning in this series.
These are all things that are central tenets of the Magic’s discipline and defense. And they have to be hardened and firm to go up against the Bucks.
Milwaukee will be trying to break Orlando in these ways throughout the series. If the Magic do not rebound well, stop fast breaks and keep the Bucks off the foul line, it will be nearly impossible to win.
These are the things the Magic certainly hope they can count on no matter what.
To give themselves a chance against the Bucks, it is clear they have to do these simple things exceptionally well. Otherwise, none of the other adjustments or wrinkles will work.
To win in the playoffs, it takes doing the simple things at a high level first. You cannot simply play better without doing these things first.