The Orlando Magic’s backs are now against the wall. They have a tall order facing them against the Milwaukee Bucks as they aim to even the series.
It is safe to say that the Orlando Magic’s backs are against the wall now.
The drumbeat coach Steve Clifford has given every day since the series with the Milwaukee Bucks was the next game up was to say how important the first quarter would be. The Magic could not afford to play from behind in this series. The Bucks’ defense is simply too good to make up ground.
In any case, as has been proven in Games 2 and 3, any little mistake will be quick points the other way. There is just no margin for error.
Just like Orlando could not afford to go behind early and needed confidence to survive any individual game. The Magic cannot afford to go down in the series. Especially after taking that 1-0 series lead.
Certainly, a 3-1 series deficit would feel like a death sentence. It would be nearly impossible to make up that difference to win the series. And certainly three straight defeats — especially if they all end up being close to blowouts — would likely mean another gentlemen’s sweep in the playoffs for the Magic.
If the Magic want their season to extend beyond Wednesday, they probably need to win Monday. In fact, the Magic probably at least want to see if they can compete in a close game against the Bucks at a minimum.
Games 2 and 3 were essentially blowout losses. The final scores were much closer than the games were actually played. That can no longer stand.
Clifford said after last year’s playoff appearance that he was most disappointed that his team did not compete better and make the Toronto Raptors work for the series victory more. That remained the goal entering this postseason.
And while Orlando won that first game yet again, it is yet to be seen if the team will make Milwaukee sweat and compete seriously.
Game 4 is very much that last chance to do so.
Play with desperation and intensity
The one thing we have never really seen from the Orlando Magic is how this team plays with desperation and energy. Especially in a playoff setting.
Last year’s 22-9 run to the postseason was certainly born out of desperate energy — the team had to make up 5.5 games on Jan. 31 and did not clinch until the penultimate game. This year has been characterized by something of expected energy. The Magic were never pushed for a playoff spot once the season was established. They have somewhat coasted into the postseason — even after the season resumed.
The Magic did not win when the chips were on the table inside the campus. The Magic lost five straight at Disney — all to the only playoff teams they played inside the campus — and gave up their advantage for the seventh seed. Orlando failed in one of its big goals since the season resumed.
But perhaps there is something instructive in those defeats. The Orlando Magic played with some extreme focus from start to finish in losses to the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics, knowing they needed at least one of those games to retain some chance of winning seventh. They were a late-game meltdown away from defeating the Celtics.
Orlando played those games with at least some measure of desperation and focus. The Magic were locked into the gameplan and played exceptionally well to give themselves a chance — even if they were not able to get across the finish line. They will need that focus again with big games from Nikola Vucevic, Terrence Ross and Evan Fournier to get them there.
It has felt like a broken record in these posts to say the Orlando Magic need to get off to a good start. And that remains the truth. Orlando needs to be in the game at the end of the first quarter and survive that first onslaught. But let’s get more specific.
The Magic need to make threes early. That was a huge key in Game 1 where the Magic made 5 of 11 3-pointers to stake a 10-point lead. That hot shooting (63.6 percent overall) gave the team a ton of confidence within the gameplan to succeed the rest of the game.
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That did not happen in Games 2 and 3. In Game 2, the Magic shot 3 for 24 and there is not much more that needs to be said there. In Game 3, Orlando shot 42.9-percent from the floor and 2 for 8 from deep. That was not fatal on its face, but it put the Magic in a hole.
If Orlando wants to win, it has to make shots early. It has to play well enough to stay in the game. And that relies on making shots.
Making shots is an overly simplistic request. But it really affects everything. Missing shots feeds the Bucks’ fast break. Making shots gives Orlando confidence and relieves the pressure they are facing on the perimeter.
Re-form the wall
Undoubtedly the Orlando Magic played their worst defensive game of the series in Game 3. They turned the ball over and allowed fast breaks. They let Giannis Antetokounmpo live inside the paint — he made 12 of 14 shots including 10 of 10 in the paint and 12 free throws to boot.
That was not the only problem. The Magic’s perimeter defense was just horrible, allowing Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton easy paths to the basket. That set up the team’s 3-point shooting. Every level of the Magic’s defense failed.
So step one for the Magic is to resettle their defense and get themselves ready to absorb the pressure that comes from the Bucks and their attack. The wall strategy is the best way to slow down Antetokounmpo. Orlando has to make sure they make him think and turn. That is the only way to slow him down.
But that strategy likely works against other players too. Orlando has to lock down the paint better. That was the key to winning Game 1 and then competing better in Game 2. The Magic have to defend the paint. If that means walling off the paint and being more aggressive — like the Bucks are — with their drop and help coverages. — that needs to be the way the team plays.
That is not quite how the Magic usually play. Orlando is not going to universally change themselves at this point. That is not Steve Clifford’s way. But they have to do better at taking something away. Forcing the Bucks to shoot might very well be their best bet.
Keep a short leash and the energy up
We are at the point of the season where the Orlando Magic need to play with some desperate energy. They are running out of chances. And indeed a 3-1 deficit should be viewed as a death sentence in the series. Orlando needs to view this as a must-win game.
Steve Clifford is not one to change his rotation. He is not going to throw playing groups on the floor that he is not comfortable with. He is not going to drastically change what he does. That is just who he is. So do not expect funky lineups that we have never seen before.
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But what this should mean is the Magic keep their lineups on a short leash. If a player — especially a reserve — is struggling or not playing effectively, then they need to be taken out of the game in favor of players that Clifford trusts.
Markelle Fultz has really struggled in this series. He is averaging only 10.3 points per game but on a 43.5 percent effective field goal percentage. Fultz is averaging 4.7 assists per game against 3.0 turnovers per game.
Orlando has essentially bet they are at their best with Fultz. But they know Fultz is still a bit limited and inconsistent. They need to be able to assess quickly whether Fultz is getting them into the offense and handling the pressure. If he is not, D.J. Augustin has been much more consistent and effective offensively, even if he is giving something up defensively.
That is part of the decisions the Magic have to make. They need to play guys who will be effective — especially early. And so some players who are struggling, like Fultz, might need a short leash.
Everything through Vucevic
So far this series, Nikola Vucevic has been the most effective player by far. He is averaging 29.0 points per game and 9.7 rebounds per game on a 61.4-percent effective field goal percentage. That is some next-level play from Vucevic.
The next highest scorer on the Magic this postseason? Terrence Ross at 16.7 points per game. And he is shooting 35.3-percent from beyond the arc. Orlando has five players scoring in double figures. But outside of Vucevic and Ross, none of those players are scoring efficiently at better than 50-percent effective field goal percentage.
The Bucks are doing a great job slowing down Ross and forcing him to cut shallow. He has adjusted well. But it has taken him a while to figure out the defense and find his rhythm.
At this point, Vucevic is the most reliable thing the Magic have offensively. He has been the only player consistently able to get his own shot or find open space. And at this point, everything needs to run through him. The Bucks are even starting to double and triple him more.
Vucevic has a 32.0-percent usage rate in this series. That is superstar-level usage. Orlando has had to lean on Vucevic. And the strategy now is probably to lean on him more. He is the only thing working, after all. So long as Vucevic remains patient and under control, he should be able to help this team significantly.
Game 4 is set for a 1:30 p.m. tip at the Disney campus.