The Orlando Magic had their chance to steal a game from the Milwaukee Bucks. But a fourth-quarter drought and a Bucks surge ended the hopes of an upset.
Aaron Gordon saw the seas part and Giannis Antetokounmpo lining up to try to take a charge, half-protecting himself with five fouls. The Orlando Magic needed their top playmaker (now, at least) to be aggressive and to make this kind of play.
So he ignored the reigning Defensive Player of the Year standing under the basket and rose over him. It is a highlight that will run in the Amway Center for the rest of the year and be a hallmark play in the top-10 lists that will come. As will the snarl Aaron Gordon gave after the play ended.
It brought the Orlando Magic within two points of the mighty Milwaukee Bucks. The team had every reason to believe it was due to compete and steal a marquee win.
Then the Bucks happened. One play does not make a championship team. It is weathering all the ups and downs and finding your level. It is having a way to play and sticking to it.
It is making timely shots to stem the tide and putting your foot down when you sense some weakness.
Giannis Antetokounmpo made a play in response, gingerly making a 3-pointer following Gordon’s dunk. Then Bobby Portis made another, hitting a three on the next possession to extend the lead out to eight points.
Then Khris Middleton. And D.J. Augustin and Pat Connaughton and Bryn Forbes. Everyone seemed to have a play. And the Magic seemed to have none.
Their response to the Bucks extending the lead was forced play and turnovers. The Magic had risen up and fought. But eventually dried up, unable to get easy baskets or stops.
The Bucks turned that two-point lead into as much as a 25-point lead to take home a 121-99 victory at the Amway Center. The final margin was not indicative of how close the game was played — much like three of Milwaukee’s four wins in the teams’ playoff series last year. Except this time, the Magic had a more full complement of players to compete and had the game in their grasps.
Orlando might feel positive that they have found a way to play that can compete. They found the energy and the roles that seemed to work for everyone. But they did not have the attention to detail — 19 turnovers for 31 Milwaukee points including five for 10 points in the fourth quarter — to get the job done.
Orlando instead fell a bit further behind with a big road trip coming up.
It is getting harder and harder to ask more of Nikola Vucevic. Yet, it still feels like the team needs a bit more. A bit more efficiency. A bit more demanding of the ball in spots where he can get easy baskets and set others up. A bit more control over the game.
No one should have any problems with Nikola Vucevic’s production — 28 points, 13 rebounds and five assists. It is hard to say he is doing anything to take away from the team or from the game. Vucevic is not putting up empty stats. He is literally keeping this offense afloat and giving this team the chance to win. Even defensively, Vucevic is reliable and typically in good position.
It is hard to come up with adjectives anymore to describe Vucevic. He is expected to put up 25 a night and is largely doing it. He is expected to do so much and carry such a huge burden. And he is doing it. And yet the team still needs more. They need better efficiency and they need him to be a greater calming force. And probably a bit more selfish with an understanding of when to hang on the perimeter and when to get into the paint better.
If Aaron Gordon plays with this much fire and intensity for the rest of the season, the Orlando Magic will be able to operate and function without Markelle Fultz. If there is something positive to take away from this game, it should be that. Gordon is taking on a lot of the primary playmaking role right now with all the injuries, and while there are still growing pains as he re-learns his role, he showed plenty of potential.
Gordon had five assists in fairly quick order in the first half, finishing the game with eight. He worked a two-man game with Nikola Vucevic really effectively for the most part. And after he got used to absorbing the pressure defensively, he ran the Magic’s offense well. Gordon was even hitting from the outside with 21 points.
More importantly, he did a fantastic job slowing down Giannis Antetokunmpo. Antetokounmpo scored 22 points and dished out four assists, but he also had four turnovers. And Gordon got him in foul trouble throughout the game, giving himself and the team a bit of a breather. Gordon just has to learn how to manage the tempo of the game and not to force things. Simplifying the offense and comfort will go a long way.
No player has been hurt by the shifting lineups more than Terrence Ross. The bench groups that were ripping apart the league through the first four or five games this season have been broken and now defense are putting their entire focus on Terrence Ross and daring someone else to beat them. Ross is struggling to get the same open looks or even find the same space to drive and work off the dribble as he was doing earlier.
The Milwaukee Bucks did a really good job chasing him on screens and staying attached to him. They were extremely physical. And Ross was frustrated with the lack of early foul calls. It seemed to take him out of his attack mindset and Ross never got his rhythm back.
Ross finished with four points on just 2-for-6 shooting. It was good that he did not try to shoot the Magic out of the game, sot to speak, as he often does when the team struggles. But the Magic need Ross’ scoring right now. Gordon and Vucevic were the only two reliable offensive options. They needed Ross’ scoring threat to pace them and calm them. It just was not there.
Mohamed Bamba got his second run in meaningful minutes of the season, playing 11:20 for the game with regular stints in both halves. He made his presence felt in some respects and looked to gain some confidence and rhythm the more he plays. Sneaking him some minutes has definitely done well for him. Most of his mistakes are merely timing and experience mistakes.
There just is not much time for those. And Mohamed Bamba was counted on in some respects to produce at the biggest moment of the game. He did with a looping and-one finish that was a sign of his versatility and offensive potential. But he still looks fairly lost out there. It is like he is still a step behind and regaining his rhythm. He finished with eight points on 3-for-7 shooting.
Bamba picked up two fouls quickly in the first half just from not being in position quick enough. He got turned around and seemed to try to use his length alone to defend. That had some effect. But his ultimate potential lies in using his length to deter shots. He needs better footwork and technique to get there. It is still a long way to go.
The Milwaukee Bucks have found an offensive groove. The team has the top offense in the league and it is clear they can still attack and hurt you even without Giannis Antetokounmpo at his best. The Bucks staked a lead and held on before the avalanche came. This is a team that has every player confident and bought in early with what they are trying to do on that end of the floor.
Bobby Portis scored 20 points off the bench and Bryn Forbes had 14 to key that fourth-quarter run that gave the Bucks the final margin. Khris Middleton was a killer yet again with 20 points on 9-for-17 shooting. He hit several tough shorts in the fourth quarter that Orlando had no answer for.
The defense is still coming into focus though. The Magic were able to find long pockets where they were able to score effectively. And it was as much the Magic’s own doing that they went cold in the fourth quarter. Still, the Bucks’ physicality and intensity threw the Magic off throughout the game.
The Magic are now 6-5 and fifth in the Eastern Conference. They are scheduled to being a six-game, 10-day road trip in Boston against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday. However, the Boston Celtics’ game Tuesday against the Chicago Bulls was postponed due to a surplus of players in contact tracing for the Celtics.