After a stunning Game 1 loss to the eighth-seeded Orlando Magic, the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks reconfigured their collective mindset.
They cannot fall into the outside belief that they are the NBA title favorites, they concluded. They must play with the edge and sense of urgency of an upstart team, an identity they held even last season as the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed, they determined.
That attitude has permeated through Games 2 and 3 against the Magic, both comfortable Milwaukee victories. Now the Bucks will aim to take a commanding 3-1 series lead when the two teams square off for Game 4 Monday afternoon at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex near Orlando.
“There’s gonna be a lot of people out there saying we might go (win a championship),” Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “But if we don’t go out there and take it, or if we don’t go out there and play with a chip on our shoulder and play hard every second every possession of the game, it’s not gonna happen. That’s life. There’s no way to work around this.
“So for me and for the team, it’s that we’re gonna go out there and play hard. We’re not gonna play like the favorite. We’re gonna play like the underdogs. We decided to do that and be us from the second game that we played against Orlando. And, from now on, that’s who we’re gonna be until the end.”
It’s feeling more and more like Orlando’s Game 1 win was just an aberration.
Since then, the Bucks’ defensive pressure has stifled the Magic for long stretches, leading to transition opportunities and easy buckets for the Bucks. Milwaukee racked up 50 points in the paint during Saturday’s 121-107 victory, helping it build a 34-point second-half advantage.
“They were up and into us on every catch and they pushed us out,” Orlando coach Steve Clifford said.” … We’re gonna have to be able to play with more force, cut harder, screen better, make quicker decisions. That’s what we did in the first game, and that’ll give us a chance.”
Antetokounmpo is coming off his most efficient game of the series, making 12 of 14 shots in a 35-point performance. He also got an overdue boost from fellow All-Star Khris Middleton, who totaled 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists Saturday after scoring just two points in Game 2.
“Everybody wanted him to be aggressive,” Antetokounmpo said of Middleton. “Even if they double-team him, even if they triple-team him, we wanted him to be aggressive. We wanted him to get back in his rhythm. …
“He got his 3s (in Game 3). He got his 2s. He made his moves. It’s happy to see Khris out there playing like that. We’re gonna need him. We need him now. We’re gonna need him in the future.”
Nikola Vucevic has been Orlando’s reliable scorer, though he was less efficient in Game 3 (8 of 19 from the floor, 2 of 8 from 3-point range) in his 20-point performance. Terrence Ross and D.J. Augustin have provided lifts off the bench.
But the Magic have remained undermanned throughout the series. Starting forward Aaron Gordon (hamstring) and guard Michael Carter-Williams (foot) have not played, and their statuses for Game 4 are up in the air.
“It definitely makes it harder,” Clifford said. “At the same time, though, in this league — and the players know this — whoever’s healthy has to play as well as they can. … We have to play better.”
–Field Level Media