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Bucks First Round Preview

Antetokounmpo hits a layup against the Orlando Magic. Photo by Jose Garcia. (CC BY 2.0)

Playoff basketball is finally back, and with the Eastern Conference standings unchanged from pre-pandemic to current day, the No. 1 seed Milwaukee Bucks are set to face off against the No. 8 seed Orlando Magic in the first round. While an eight-seed beating a one-seed is always a long shot, postseason basketball brings a new atmosphere of competition and uncertainty to the game as teams begin their climb to the top. 

Here are a few things fans will want to see from Milwaukee in this opening series:

Bully Ball Inside:

The Orlando Magic are not a very good defensive team, going 3-5 in the eight-game return post-cancellation in large part due to shortcomings on that end of the court. They are even worse without First-Team defender Jonathan Isaac, who went down with a torn ACL earlier this month. 

Without Isaac, the Magic allow 4.1 more points per possession and allow 3% higher shooting within the restricted area. Conversely, Giannis Antetokounmpo shoots 78% from the field when he gets within three feet of the hoop. Some quick math suggests Giannis should have a field day attacking the basket against Orlando, but let’s dive deeper.

The Bucks take just 35% of their shots at the rim, but make them at an insane 68% clip, good enough for second-best in the league. And while the Magic allow a third lowest percentage of attempts at the rim (32%), they allow opponents to shoot 65% from that area, ranking 21st in the league.

Conversely, Orlando finds themselves at the rim for just 33% of their shots — making them at a 63% clip — they will find it even more difficult to do so against a tough Bucks interior that ranks top in opponent shooting percentage at the rim, allowing teams to score just on just 55% of their attempts.

Whether on offense or defense, it should be a dominant game for Milwaukee inside the restricted area.

Giannis is the most dominant player in the NBA right now, that’s a given. But he is not the only star the Bucks have despite their game plan — especially in crunchtime — suggesting such. With the likes of Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton on the team, even with Antetokounmpo’s talent there is no need for every other play to result in a Giannis drive from the top of the key ending in either free throws or an offensive foul.

Eric Bledsoe is a fine ball handler with a lightning quick first step and the athleticism to finish inside. He is not the player he once was in Phoenix but his averages of 15/5/5 are more than respectable and worthy of some more touches. And while he won’t kill you from the outside he has shown he is more than capable of hitting shots from the mid-range and beyond. 

Bledsoe does not need to be the primary ball handler on every possession, but working him and his change of pace into some more plays than we see could be beneficial for taking the pressure off Giannis.

If you’ve read my other stories, you know how much I like Brook Lopez. He’s been great for the Bucks during his stint with the team, and turned it on to another level during the seeding games, averaging 20 points, six rebounds and two blocks in his last seven.

He’s shown the ability to light it up from deep while maintaining his post dominance from earlier in his career, which is sure to show particularly in this Orlando matchup. Magic’s center Nikola Vucevic is by no means known for his defensive prowess and has repeatedly been torn up by opposing big men on all levels of the court. Brook Lopez can go to work this series and get some momentum of his own heading into round 2, but only if he gets the touches he deserves.

Most important of the bunch though, is Khris Middleton. The All-Star has been hit or miss scoring wise, but that is sure to come as he plays in a more competitive environment. Where Middleton has shined and should continue to is as a ball handler running alongside Giannis. Averaging a career-best 4.3 assists per game this season, Middleton upped his average to almost six assists per game in the seeding games while maintaining his scoring numbers. 

Middleton’s vision, particularly in the pick-and-roll, has been phenomenal of late, and whether it be with Giannis, Lopez or even Ersan Ilyasova, Middleton seemingly always finds the optimal play off the screen. Add onto that the fact that he is an excellent 3-point shooter and potentially even more reliable in the mid-range, and it should be a goal to have the ball in his hands more often.

This Bucks starting five is one of the most complete groups in the NBA, and it’s about time they started playing like it.

Growth:

Above all else I want to see good basketball. The Bucks went 3-5 in their seeding games with unnecessary losses to the Nets and Grizzlies, and playoff-level games against the Rockets, Mavericks and Raptors ending in close defeats. There were times when they looked dominant like in their huge comeback against the Heat, and times they looked pretty helpless even with Giannis on the floor.

The Magic do not provide immense competition to the Bucks on paper, so this series provides a perfect opportunity for the one-seed to find their rhythm and make the needed adjustments heading into round 2 against other top teams.

If all goes well, the Bucks should be able to advance in four and head into the Conference Semis with a clearer identity and momentum on their side, but we’ll see what happens at tip-off.`

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