With the mediocrity of the Milwaukee Bucks’ seeding games (hopefully) in the rearview mirror, we’re finally at the proving grounds once more following last year’s Playoff flameout. Myriad decisions and lingering questions are nearing a head, from eschewing a big-time contract for Malcolm Brogdon to the efficacy of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s commitment to finding a countermove after being somewhat stymied by Kawhi Leonard and co. The impending first round series with the Orlando Magic isn’t likely to provide the answers we’ve longed for all year, but the dearth of meaningful, high-leverage games this season brings outsized importance to contests with some semblance of stakes.
So even if this series conjures the same level of excitement as a mid-game baby race, I’ll still be keenly watching for how this team responds, particularly given the crowd-free setting and uneven play throughout the seeding games. In that vein, here are four different factors I’ll be closely monitoring throughout the series:
- Shot Location
- Transition/Fastbreak Points
- Vucevic v. Lopez
- Sneaky Key Buck to Watch
Fortunately, Milwaukee played a full four-game suite against the Orlando Magic, all of which occurred in the pre-bubble times. Each ended in a W for the Bucks, with the closest margin of victory at nine points. Most were thwompings, which bodes well for the Bucks. Let’s dig into the numbers.
In the second year of Bud’s Bucks, he’s grown slightly more lenient in his rim and 3-pointers philosophy, with Milwaukee now taking the 23rd highest percentage of shots from midrange at 25.7%, up from 21% last year. Some of those attempts have come at the cost of buckets at the rim, but Milwaukee is still a potent enough team at the rim that the first intriguing contrast comes between Orlando’s ability to wall off their opponent from attempts near the tin. (All shooting stats courtesy of Cleaning The Glass)
They allow the 3rd lowest percentage of attempts in that prime location. Given the Bucks production down low, they can’t find themselves settling for long-range attempts time-after-time, particularly if they’re not falling. Milwaukee shouldn’t be afraid to try and force the issue down low, even if the Magic boast the fifth-lowest opponent free throw rate, a typical trait of disciplined Steve Clifford squads. Given Milwaukee’s incredible efficiency down low compared to the Magic’s meh rim protection, that’s another tally for attacking with abandonment. With no Jonathan Isaac for the Playoffs, there aren’t many Magic men in the paint that should strike fear into Giannis Antetokounmpo’s heart.
The Magic aren’t world-beaters at running teams off the line, so Milwaukee will likely feel free to let it fly. But, as stated earlier, there are gaps to exploit with this Magic team, who are happy to allow the occasional midrange jumper. The numbers suggest plenty of potential for Khris Middleton to feast inside the arc if it pleases him. In the four games against Orlando, he went 30-59 from the field overall. On the flipside, the Bucks’ illustrious ability to keep teams from the rim won’t matter quite as much against a Magic team who takes nearly identical percentages of shots down low, from midrange and from 3-point land.
Across the board, Milwaukee shouldn’t expect the Magic to favor any part of the court offensively. While that may mitigate a bit of their paint productivity defensively, it also means that outside of Terrence Ross, they shouldn’t expect the Magic to start raining hellfire from 30 feet. Their proclivity for midrange jumpers does play precisely into the Bucks’ defensive hands, so keep an eye out for plenty of midrange off-the-dribble jumpers and floaters, but the Magic don’t have boast elite shooting in that arena.
The Bucks have also defended the midrange quite well this season, despite gladly allowing opponents to chuck from there. If you’re a Bucks fan, you live with a stepback from Fultz all day, everyday.
The pace disparity between these two squads isn’t quite tortoise and the hare, but it’s at least bovine and the hare. Milwaukee blitzes teams with speed, barreling forward at every opportunity at the fastest pace in the league. Orlando has adopted Coach Clifford’s methodical style, sporting the 5th slowest pace. Everything may slow down in the Playoffs, but the more important factor here is the Bucks general commitment to scoring with their fast-paced game rather than letting the defense get set.
The Bucks are 3rd in the league with 18 fast break points per game, compared to just 11.9 for the Magic. However, the Magic rank 4th in the league for fewest opponent fast break points, 11.9, per NBA.com. Given the massive difference in pace between these teams though, raw stats aren’t a great barometer. Milwaukee runs in transition at the greatest rate, 18.5% of plays. Orlando isn’t too far behind them though, ranked 12th at 14.8%. So, despite their moseying pace, they still recognize and try to capitalize upon transition chances.
Orlando also holds teams to the 6th fewest percentage of their plays coming in transition, a stingy number that’s partially tied to team discipline, and likely a lingering effect from their lulling to sleep pace. The Bucks are ranked 27th in that same category, but allow only a 1.5% higher frequency. Given the minute differences between teams at the top and bottom of that statistic, it should mute some of the individual impact the Magic may hope to gain from preventing the Bucks to run.
The real crux will come in transition off live rebounds, a play type Milwaukee leads the league at with 35% of their plays. Orlando allows opponents to run off live rebounds just 25.6% of the time. The Bucks will look to outsprint Magic defenders for quick Giannis finishes at the tin or early shot clock heaves from deep. If they can start to impact the pace of play to the point where they’re running things consistently, this series should breeze by.
That exact scenario played out in their four matchups this year, where the average pace of play was 102.9, closer to Milwaukee’s 105.5 pace than the Magic’s 99.0 mark. The Bucks ruled the paint and won on fast break points, outscoring the Magic by 46 and 36 total respectively across their regular season games. Expect Bud to force the issue with his players against a Magic team that isn’t equipped to withstand a racecar approach.
Lopez vs. Vucevic
If anything emerged from the seeding games that could stick around for the postseason, it’s that Brook Lopez looks like Milwaukee’s third most important offensive cog right now. No offense to Eric Bledsoe, who may have just been working his way back into game shape after his COVID-19 diagnosis, but Lopez has no history of Playoff jitters and Bud seemed intent on feeding the big man in multiple ways throughout the bubble season. Most importantly, he delivered in spades. Going up against Nikola Vucevic, the Magic’s versatile offensive hub who has expanded his range in recent years, should provide Lopez with a fitting challenge on both ends of the court.
A career 33.5% 3-point shooter, Vucevic is at 33.9% on a career-high 4.7 attempts per game this year. He certainly didn’t shy away against the Bucks either, launching 20 3-pointers in the three games he appeared in against Milwaukee. He went 5-20, including two 0-fer performances. We all know Bud is fine letting big men fire away, just think back to Al Horford in last year’s second round Playoff series, particularly above the break. The gambit is that each miss might hinder their confidence to keep shooting it. Vucevic hasn’t been gun-shy in the regular season, but we’ll see whether the Playoff changes his stance. Where Vucevic really bales his hay though is from the midrange, which make up 42% of his shot attempts, and he nails 46% of them, an elite figure for a big. Lopez will have to manage his positioning adroitly, using his paws to deter Vucevic’s shot while also tending to the rim with his fortress-like protection down low.
Here’s a perfect example where Vuc uses his unique abilities to not fully rim-roll, opting to stop short for a condensed pick-and-pop, allowing him to sneak off the shot before Lopez even has a chance to fully shift his attention from D.J. Augustin and disrupt Vuc’s jumper.
On the other side of the ball, Lopez’s floor-stretching ability isn’t quite as imperative given Vucevic’s lack of rim protection skills. Giannis should have free rein of the paint if he’s able to get past Aaron Gordon or whatever other defender the Magic opt to saddle upon him. While Brook hitting triples is always nice, we’ve seen Bud push him closer to the basket throughout the seeding games in hopes of attacking mismatches. Against a less savvy defender like Vucevic, those types of looks may as well be a mismatch. What also intrigues is whether Brook can utilize a bit of his off-the-dribble mobility against Vucevic, like he did from the very outset in this game below.
Knowing Brook’s shooting ability, Vuc gets up close, only for Brook to rip through and do his Titanic-esque drive into the paint for a looping finish at the end. With few other Magic help defenders offering the type of size and defensive menace that Jonathan Isaac did, Brook can capitalize during non-Giannis minutes with mechanical pushes toward the tin. The heady big man matchup will be one of my favorite to monitor throughout.
Sneaky Key Buck to Watch
Marvin Williams is probably the sneaky Bucks player every fan will have their eye on this postseason. As one of the few new additions from last year’s Playoff run, fans are hoping his increased defensive versatility and un-creaky stature will elevate the team from Ersan’s declining play. In the bubble, as before the bubble, he was generally reticent to shoot. Some may view that as a net positive since the Bucks should be funneling the ball to their best players, but I wouldn’t have minded seeing Marvin get a few extra shots up given he’ll eventually be called upon in the Playoffs to knock down some clutch triples.
His high-point total as a Buck actually came in his first contest, when he notched nine points in 19 minutes against Indiana. In the bubble, I was most enthused by his first appearance against Houston. He was active on the boards, and I felt as if he was starting to get a little bit of short-roll chemistry with the team. If he can generally replicate Ersan offensively, that’s a victory, but it’s his defensive acumen Milwaukee hopes will unlock as the postseason rolls on. Here, he’s assignment sound, pinching in to assist George Hill with a prodding Russell Westbrook looking to shimmy his way to the basket. Then, when the pass goes to P.J. Tucker in the corner, Williams gives a more than adequate close-out that looks far more fearsome than what Ersan might muster at his age.
Marvin won’t make or break this series, but it’s also one of our first opportunities to see how he gels with this squad during meaningful contests. Against an athletic forward like Aaron Gordon, I’ll want to see how Williams fares defensively.
We all know the real reasons Milwaukee should win this series will boil down to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s paint domination, Middleton’s shotmaking and how well the Bucks snap back to pre-bubble play, but these are some smaller trends one can track across the course of this series to see how it’s going. There’s no shortage of subplots to track with this Bucks team heading into the postseason, and with the lack of any consistent rotation in the seeding games, any semblance of “typical” Bucks basketball will be a welcome addition to our ongoing discussions over just how far this team will go this postseason.