One quarter is better than none, and based on the way the Milwaukee Bucks went after the Orlando Magic from tipoff of Game 2 Thursday evening, you might have thought their victory to even the series might count double, triple or, heck, even quadruple.
OK, on to the conference semifinals…
Not so fast. The Bucks did what they had to do so save face, soothe their feelings and avoid the unthinkable. They played harder than in Game 1, admittedly a ninny boast for a team with championship ambitions. They blitzed the Magic defensively, disrupting this time what had flowed so well two days earlier. They built a big lead early and protected it late -- again, admirable but nothing to write home about from the bubble, not in a No. 1 vs. No. 8 showdown.
But Milwaukee let Orlando hang around and eventually feel OK about itself, considering the misses and mistakes the Magic had. That’s an opportunity lost in a series that’s now best-of-five, against an underdog with nothing to lose, trying to cover for an All-Star -- Khris Middleton -- who still is MIA.
The Bucks fired back by getting to work on defense, dialing up Eric Bledsoe to chase and pester Orlando’s Markelle Fultz like the All-Defensive talent he is. Bledsoe was active instead of passive this time, getting a block, a steal and generally under the Magic players’ skin in the first quarter.
Those opening 12 minutes were everything you’d expect in a mismatch of maximum seedings. Orlando managed only three field goals on 23 shots, including 1-of-11 from 3-point range. The Bucks put all their energy into that end, shot 38.5% (2-for-9 from the arc) and had six turnovers, and still led 25-13.
Let’s break down the rest though: Over the final three quarters, the teams essentially were even (86-83, Bucks). Orlando put up 30 points in both the second and third quarters, crossing a defensive red line for Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. Meanwhile, they outscored and outshot the Bucks in the second half.
Milwaukee felt good afterward because this is a bottom-line business. No apologies for winning, right? Also, some guys who hadn’t shined lately managed to. There was a sense of equilibrium being restored from Tuesday.
The Bucks, after all, put up 111 points, pretty much like Game 1 (110). But instead of giving up 122, they stopped the Magic at 94. Twenty-six point swings are good for a defensive-oriented team's soul.
“They were really good. We took a lot of quick shots early in the game,” said Orlando coach Steve Clifford, who knows his way around strong defense. “Against them, you’ve got to get the ball moving. We didn’t do that early … Their ball pressure, they were into us more.”
The Bucks are competing not just against Eastern Conference rivals in this tournament -- they’re facing expectations and ghosts of their own selves. They have gone from regular-season dazzlers in 2018-19 to playoff disappointments, back to dazzlers and now to something TBD.
“It’s a little bit of a different mentality,” said backup wing Pat Connaughton, indispensable Thursday with 15 points, 11 rebounds and two blocked shots that helped keep the Magic distanced.
“Last year we had that chip on our shoulder because nobody believed in us,” Connaughton said. “This year, according to the outside world, we’re favorites. So we need to bring ourselves back to that chip on our shoulder mentality … that we started this culture on at the beginning of last season.”
Connaughton, Kyle Korver and Brook Lopez made the Bucks nearly whole on offense by taking and making the shots made available by Orlando’s necessary obsession stopping Giannis Antetokounmpo. That whole build-a-wall strategy is only effective if a) the Bucks star is forcing his own offense rather than passing to the perimeter, or b) those snipers are missing.
This was a just-right combination, allowing the Bucks to recognize themselves.
“Obviously, I don’t like seeing that wall. I like playing 1-on-1,” Antetokounmpo said. “But you’ve got to play with what the defense gives you.”
He knows what he needs to do. In Game 3, he’s going to be great."
Said Nikola Vucevic, the Orlando center who scored 32 to go with his 35 from Game 1: “Especially early on, Giannis was doing a good job getting us to commit. Once they start hitting 3s, you have a tendency to spread and get a little more out to the shooters.”
That’s when Antetokounmpo finds bricks missing in those walls. He had 28 points, 20 rebounds and five assists, along with seven turnovers and four fouls.
If Vucevic can keep up with Antetokounmpo (or nearly so) and Bledsoe/George Hill don’t lose out to Fultz/D.J. Augustin at point guard, the next matchup that matters is Middleton vs. Evan Fournier. They are their team’s second-leading scorers, but right now it’s a coin flip which one finds rhythm first. Fournier has made only 7-of-21 shots, Middleton just 5-of-20.
Middleton is a two-time All-Star in Year 1 of a $177-million max deal. Fournier never has sniffed that status as a player, with a contract half that size. Besides, one guy’s team has The Finals in mind, the other’s does not.
What can the Bucks do to help Middleton get going? Essentially, Antetokounmpo said, trust him.
“Just don’t bother him,” Antetokounmpo said. “He’s a great scorer. I think the team, we keep talking to him. Obviously we’re gong to encourage him but we’re not going to overstep.
“He knows what he needs to do. I’ve seen Khris come off a bad game and score 30, 35. … In Game 3, he’s going to be great.”
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