5 keys for an Orlando Magic win in Game 1 against the Milwaukee Bucks

Defending Giannis Antetokounmpo always proves to be a tall task even for Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Defending Giannis Antetokounmpo always proves to be a tall task even for Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic have a tall task taking on the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. But there is the opportunity to steal Game 1.

The Amway Center is bustling with energy again. The building is dressed up with Orlando Magic Playoffs plastered against the windows of its spire. This is an exciting time and the city should be preparing to host a major event.

Except what is going on inside the Amway Center is the building of the WWE’s ThunderDome, a virtual fan experience so the promotion can get out of its Performance Center in Winter Park and return to an actual stadium.

The Magic? They are at Disney, secluded inside the NBA Campus preparing for an unprecedented August start to the playoffs.

There will be no Wall Street watch party (or, there better not be considering the coronavirus continues to make a dent in the Florida population, although things are trending in the right direction). This will be a playoffs unlike any other.

Evan Fournier said after Monday’s practice that there are mixed emotions among the team about these playoffs. Their main goal was to get back to the playoffs and they are eager to test themselves against one of the league’s best teams.

But it will be different playing without the fans. They will not have the atmosphere and the support to cheer them on. To be sure, the Magic want some redemption from last year’s five-game cameo in the postseason. They will have to wait another year to deliver the Magic their first Playoff win at the Amway Center since 2011.

Once the ball tips though, it will be basketball all over again. And the Magic drew about as tough a matchup as there could be.

The Milwaukee Bucks have been a regular-season juggernaut the last two years. They had the best defense in the league this year by a fairly wide margin. And Giannis Antetokounmpo is on track to win his second straight MVP award.

They give up virtually no points in the paint and they turn misses into transition points with the steam train of Antetokounmpo heading downhill right at the defense.

Orlando got blitzed in all four games against the Bucks. They trailed by more than 15 points in each game. And while Orlando rallied to make those games tight in the second quarter (except for the first meeting in November when Orlando took an early double-digit lead before going down by more than 30), none of those games were particularly close.

The Bucks have a strong shooter and scorer in Khris Middleton. Smart defenders on the perimeter at all points. And shooters who spread the floor and take advantage of all the gravity Antetokounmpo requires as he pushes toward the rim.

Milwaukee is rightfully the heavy favorite in this series. Orlando has a solid defense, but it has underperformed dating back to February. The team is still figuring out its offense — and getting healthy to boot. Perhaps the Magic’s best defensive weapon in this series tore his ACL early in the seeding round.

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Orlando indeed has a tall order ahead of it. Every sign is pointing toward the Bucks winning this thing. And winning it fairly easy. The Magic have to do a lot right.

But every series starts at 0-0. Everyone has the same chance to reach the four wins necessary to advance. And every game is its own unique battle.

Orlando shocked the world to win Game 1 last year in Toronto. There is no reason to think the team could not do so again. Or at least believe it is possible.

As we go through this playoff series, we will highlight five keys to each game as the Magic try to shock the world and beat the Bucks.

Get off to a strong start

There is an old golf adage: You cannot win a tournament in the first round, but you can sure lose it. And in the seeding round, the Magic lost several games just based off their first quarters.

The Orlando Magic came out slow against both the Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors. That put the team in a hole that they never really climbed out of. Playing from behind proved extremely difficult for the Magic, especially out of a deep hole.

Coach Steve Clifford has tried to impress this point at various times throughout the season. This is not a fourth-quarter league, this is a full-48 league. And what happens in the first quarter does have a big effect throughout the game.

The Magic cannot afford to fall too far behind the Bucks at any point in this game. They are a tough defensive team and they will take any missed shot and turn them into quick points. Those can add up. And Orlando simply does not have the offensive firepower to shoot their way back into the game.

More than anything, especially in Game 1, the Magic need the confidence to believe they can compete with this Bucks team. Getting blitzed right out of the gates in Game 1 would be a big hit to even the focus of this team. They need belief and confirmation of that belief at the start.

Slowing transition

Our Spencer Henderson did a deeper dive on the Orlando Magic’s need to slow down the Milwaukee Bucks in transition. This is simply one of the best transition teams in the entire league with one of the best transition finishers in the league.

The numbers? The Bucks rank third in the league with 18.0 fast-break points. The Magic are actually fourth in the league in fast-break points allowed per game too — 11.9 per game. But against the Bucks, the Magic gave up 19.3 points per game on fast breaks. That is a big difference.

This is where Giannis Antetokounmpo makes his biggest impact. He averages 1.14 points per possession in transition according to NBA.com’s tracking statistics. That is a really efficient number. He scores 57.0-percent of the time in transition.

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Orlando will put a premium on pace. So there will be some up-and-down and back-and-forth play in this series. But the Magic still have to keep the pace measured enough to prevent fast breaks. This is how the Bucks build points up in a hurry to blow the Magic out.

Whoever is controlling the pace and controlling the other team’s offense is going to have the best chance to win. Orlando struggled with this a lot in the season series with Milwaukee.

Nikola Vucevic stepping up

Nikola Vucevic is the Orlando Magic’s All-Star and a key cog to the offense. The team does not run a ton of plays for him, but he has enough gravity to draw the defense’s attention. That is, at least, what he is intended to do.

Some Magic fans certainly have been critical of Vucevic. And some of it is warranted. But the biggest criticism was the egg he laid in last year’s playoffs. Vucevic averaged only 11.2 points per game with a 38.8-percent effective field goal percentage. His absence made the Magic’s task that much tougher.

Vucevic will agree with fans critical of his play. He did not have the series he wanted. And he seems determined to make sure he has a better series this time around. The Magic will absolutely need him.

The playoffs are very much about the best players stepping up their games. They have to be able to beat set defenses who know what is coming. That is a part the Magic are seemingly missing. Vucevic has to step up his game.

He should have opportunities. The Milwaukee Bucks drop pretty aggressively. So Vucevic could find holes in the defense by making short rolls. He just has to hit the shots and be confident when he does attack the basket. Brook Lopez is a tough defender, but Nikola Vucevic will keep him occupied. His making shots will open up much more of the lane.

Aaron Gordon’s health

Aaron Gordon, at least as of Monday night, is listed as questionable for the game. Coach Steve Clifford said he participated in practice on both Sunday and Monday. But the team did not do any physical contact in that practice. So that leaves some of his status in the air.

At this point, it being the playoffs, Gordon’s hamstring would have to be in really bad shape for him not to play. Everyone knows how much the Magic need him. And his presence back in practice seemed to uplift the team, Clifford said.

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Denver Nuggets forward claps back at Noah Lyles after Finals comments /

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  • Aaron Gordon is going to get the first crack at Giannis Antetokounmpo. Frankly, he may be the only guy who gets a serious crack at Antetokounmpo. No offense to Gary Clark and even Khem Birch, whom Clifford said might get a turn. But Gordon probably has to match Antetokounmpo’s minutes here.

    Orlando’s ability to have any chance of slowing down Antetokounmpo will fall on Gordon. He has the physicality and discipline to slow him up and make him turn. That is really the only way to beat Antetokounmpo. If he is coming at the rim downhill, it is essentially game over. But Gordon is even decent at getting him to peal off that way.

    Gordon may not be able to contribute much offensively if Antetokounmpo is matched up with him. He struggled mightily this season against the Bucks — averaging 8.3 points and 7.0 rebounds per game. Gordon was the one player who stepped his game up in last year’s playoff series, so perhaps this could be another chance at a breakout performance on both ends. But he cannot do that if he is not healthy.

    3-Point Shooting

    The Milwaukee Bucks have the best defense in the league, but they have one potential weakness. They give up the most 3-point attempts per game. A lot of that is because they simply do not allow any shots in the paint.

    But a team can break their defense a bit by hitting from the outside. That is not exactly the Magic’s strength. Still, this is an area the Magic can attack. Surprisingly, Orlando was good against Milwaukee from deep — making 41.0-percent of their 3-pointers.

    The Magic can certainly fall in love with 3-pointers and that can take them out of their offense. Steve Clifford has said it is important to get quality 3-pointers where the ball hits the paint and kicks back out to the perimeter.

    Orlando got plenty of open 3-point looks. According to NBA.com’s tracking stats, the Magic took 72 wide-open 3-pointers (where the closest defender was six or more feet away). That is 18.0 attempts per game. Orlando made only 29.2 percent of those shots. Similarly, the Magic made only 14 of 42 (33.3 percent) of their open 3-point attempts (where the closest defender is 4-6 feet).

    Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic were a big part of that, going a combined 9 for 41 on 3-pointers against the Bucks. Evan Fournier actually hit 16 of 32 this season against Milwaukee. So there is definitely room for improvement because Orlando can get those open shots.

    Next. Playbook: The pressure of facing Giannis Antetokounmpo. dark

    Game 1 is Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. and a lot of these questions will get answered as the series begins.