The Orlando Magic put in the kind of performance in beating the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA playoffs that has fans coming back to the team once again.
If we’re being honest about these NBA Playoffs, which through two days have been fantastic to watch, then the series between the Orlando Magic and Milwaukee Bucks was one of the less glamorous affairs. If any matchup was likely to end in a sweep, most fans would have picked the Bucks winning four straight games to advance.
Only on Tuesday afternoon were we treated to a superb Orlando Magic performance that actually culminated in a win, which has so often not been the case despite playing well. But, how did this happen? Where did that performance come from and why did they choose now to unleash it? As has so often been the case, just when fans were drifting away from this oftentimes aimless franchise, they put in the kind of shift to get everybody back onside again.
Ironically we have to start with head coach Steve Clifford being able to deploy the “less is more” strategy here, which again is something we have seen over the last couple of years. Jonathan Isaac is gone for a long time, Mohamed Bamba is missing as well and Aaron Gordon did not play in this game. Neither did Michael Carter-Williams, who has become an important role player for them.
With all these guys missing, the stage looked set for the Bucks to smash them, as they have done so many times already this season to teams. But instead, the Magic were able to cobble together a rotation that played with so much heart and determination. This was spearheaded by center Nikola Vucevic who finally, finally had the kind of playoff performance that the Magic have been crying out for.
He finished with a game-high 35 points and was the kind of offensive maestro that he has been throughout the regular season when games didn’t matter for years. Vucevic deserves a ton of credit for carrying the Magic the way that he did, and even his strongest detractors within the Magic fanbase would have to admit that he was everything you would want your star player to be.
Coaching makes the difference in the NBA playoffs
But Clifford deserves praise here too because the game plan was spot on in this victory. The Orlando Magic have had periods of being a hot team offensively for stretches of the season. They don’t have a ton of natural creators, and when shots aren’t falling and Vucevic isn’t in control of everything they have fallen apart.
Despite having a roster that you would not look at and think was full of 3-point bombers, Clifford leaned into this way of playing and it paid off. Vucevic took eight shots from deep and made five of them. This has been a part of his game for a couple of years now but to get some consistency from deep when the team really needed it was huge.
Vucevic didn’t go to the free throw line once, which ordinarily would be a problem. But the plan here was to drag Giannis Antetokounmpo and the other Bucks bigs away from the basket, and it worked. Vucevic wasn’t alone though. There was Gary Clark going 4-for-12 from behind the arc. In fact, every shot he took was from deep all night, which shows you how the Magic were thinking.
Terrence Ross came off the bench and 18 points and was a team-high +19 as well, despite not connecting on a single shot from 3-point range. This is uncharacteristic for him, but great news for the Magic. To be able to score as many points as they did from long-range efforts without Ross, knowing he won’t be that cold again, is huge.
So while this was a team effort full of great performances, it served to get fans invested in this franchise again. Suddenly Vucevic looks like the All-Star when it really matters who they gave $100 million to. Ross is the sixth man who gets hot in a hurry, and the role players around them such as Clark and Khem Birch play hard and give their all.
Even Markelle Fultz, long ridiculed for his time in the league, can say he won his first-ever playoff game and was pretty good in how he played as well. He finished having played 29 minutes, an amazing sentence when you consider where he was as a player 12 months ago. Yes, the Magic went 1-0 up on the eventual champions the Toronto Raptors last season, but this is different.
They still won’t win this NBA playoffs series. Possibly won’t even win another game. But whereas last year there were such positive vibes going into the postseason, only to the go 1-0 up and hit euphoric levels, the Orlando Magic’s time in the bubble had gone from decent start to disastrous finish. With Isaac gone with the ACL tear and Bamba still a raw prospect, the future wasn’t looking great again.
As has so often been the case though, and it is the reason why fans love this franchise, an underhanded group went out and played hard and like they wanted to be there. Win or lose that is all you can expect from a team.
Now if they could only harness that energy and belief once some of their better players return, they would really be onto something special. No matter how the rest of this series unfolds, the fans are back onside again and there is a belief that better days are once again on the horizon. All it took was slowing down a presumptive back-to-back MVP.