Bucks’ familiar faults emerge against Magic, and now the Pacers await

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ORLANDO, Fla. — For the Milwaukee Bucks, this season has been all about ups and downs.

For every solid stretch of basketball, there was a negative one. The Bucks could move from good to bad over a week, a day or sometimes even a quarter. In the Bucks’ 113-88 loss to the Orlando Magic, a microcosm of their season, it only took a half for Milwaukee to show off the roller-coaster nature of the season that put it in the Eastern Conference’s No. 3 seed for the 2024 NBA playoffs.

In the first quarter, the Bucks played well offensively. They moved the ball, made quick decisions and exploited the Magic defense’s weaknesses. Just before everything started to go poorly, the Bucks showed off how well they were executing on a relatively simple inbounds play with 7:15 left in the second quarter.

With only 13 seconds remaining on the shot clock, Patrick Beverley inbounded the ball to Khris Middleton. Using his 2-inch height advantage over the 6-foot-5 Jalen Suggs, Middleton held the ball on the left wing and waited for his teammates to give him some space.

As Middleton surveyed the floor, Magic forward Paolo Banchero left Beverley in the right corner and ran toward Middleton for a double-team. Middleton reverse pivoted, briefly looked at Beverley cutting into the lane and then fired a pass to Bobby Portis at the top of the key for a catch-and-shoot 3. Portis’ 3 gave the Bucks an 11-point advantage.

But over the next 7:05, we saw the other side: An over-reliance on isolation attacks has been a regular defect of the Bucks’ offense this season, and it buried them again on Sunday. In that time span, the Bucks scored just three points. They missed their next 10 shots and committed three turnovers, and the Magic built a five-point halftime lead with a 25-12 rout of the Bucks in the second quarter.

“I thought way too many isos, and not only did we iso, we iso’d the wrong guy — Jonathan Isaac changed the game for them,” Bucks coach Doc Rivers said. “He’s long, he’s effective and we just kept setting pick-and-rolls with him instead of other guys. But, good lesson.

“We’re not a good iso team, though. I think we’ve proven that through the year. We are, at times, but I think we’re up nine and we had 10 or 11 straight possessions and we may have scored once. We may not have scored any of ’em. That’s something — I talked about at halftime, I talked about it before the game — that’s just something we have to catch ourselves. We have to be better in that.”

It started with this after-timeout play (ATO) that led to Isaac, the 6-foot-10 center with quick feet and long arms, being able to defend the Bucks’ two-man game and then eventually swat Middleton’s attempted lob to Brook Lopez.

And then, the Bucks ran a double ball-screen action for Damian Lillard that forced the Magic to switch twice. But the Bucks never punished that switch, and Lillard just tried to work one-on-one against Isaac for the final 13 seconds of the possession.

Two possessions later, the Bucks tried the same thing and got the exact same result: Lillard unsuccessfully attacking Isaac one-on-one.

“The smart thing to do is to try to find the weak link,” Lillard said of the Bucks’ isolating repeatedly against Isaac. “I think sometimes when you’re on the floor, when you start to point things out and try to tell everybody what you want, the other team is constantly pointing guys up and switching and doing all that stuff, and sometimes you end up being up against the clock.

“So I think that’s one thing, but I think we just gotta be more proactive about it. During free throws, just telling guys stay flat, being more clear about who we want in certain actions, so we cannot just be able to score on a guy, but just get into the paint and make the defense to react, and then maybe we just create more quality possessions.”

Lillard has been a talented scorer throughout his career and also been among the most efficient isolation scorers in previous seasons, but the same hasn’t been true this season. Per Synergy Sports, Lillard is averaging 0.97 points per isolation possession this season, which is 28th among players with at least 100 isolation possessions. In a smaller sample size, Middleton has been better in isolation situations, scoring 1.15 points per possession in those situations, but overall, isolation possessions have not led to good offense for the Bucks.

“They started pressuring us,” Middleton said. “Got us up out of our sets. And after that, we just broke down. I think spacing wasn’t right. Execution wasn’t there after that first quarter. We just gotta be better in that area.”

Things did not get much better in the second half, as the Bucks never found their footing offensively and the Magic put together a comprehensive beatdown that featured Rivers pulling his regulars with just over seven minutes remaining.

It’s fitting the Bucks lost their final game of the regular season because their offense became too reliant on attempts at shot creation in isolation. All season long, no matter the coach or the players on the floor, the Bucks have struggled with the same things on offense and defense and been unable to find answers.

On offense, when the Bucks lose games, they often blame a lack of ball movement and the ball becoming “too sticky” on multiple possessions. On defense, they often blame poor point-of-attack defense and struggling to get back in transition. Ultimately, those problems led to a 49-33 record, the Bucks’ first regular season with fewer than 50 wins (or the equivalent on a shortened schedule) since the 2017-18 season.

The Bucks still managed to win a sixth consecutive Central Division crown and claim the No. 3 seed in the East, but the team’s regular season will be looked upon as a disappointment from those inside and outside the organization. Their reward for their regular season is a first-round matchup against the Indiana Pacers, a team the Bucks struggled mightily against in the season’s first half .

“Indiana has had our number all year, so perfect opponent,” Rivers said. “Listen, we gotta play somebody, and they’re tough. They’ve played great against us. They probably have great confidence against us. We’ll have great focus because we’re going to have to.”

Including their loss in the semifinals of the In-Season Tournament, the Bucks went 1-4 against their Central Division foes this season. The Bucks’ lone win came on Dec. 13 when Giannis Antetokounmpo scored a franchise-record 64 points. Even that night is a slightly bitter memory for the Bucks, as the drama about the game ball after drew national negative attention for Antetokounmpo.

While the Bucks struggled against the Pacers in the regular season, they can take some solace in the fact that Rivers was not on the sidelines for any of those losses. One of Rivers’ first priorities as coach was cleaning up the Bucks’ transition defense, and that focus came about, at least partially, because of the Bucks’ struggles to get back against the fast-paced Pacers, who finished the regular season second in offensive rating.

The Bucks will have most of this week to prepare with Game 1 on Sunday. This week will be crucial for the Bucks as Antetokounmpo continues to work on his recovery from the left soleus strain he suffered in Tuesday’s win over the Boston Celtics in order to try to play in Game 1. But it will also be important for the rest of the team as they try to get right after dropping eight of their final 11 games, including losing two of the last three without Antetokounmpo.

“It’s a new season with the postseason, but at the same time, you don’t want to leave (losing eight of the last 11 games) in the past,” Middleton said. “You want to look at those games and look at what went wrong and try to correct those (mistakes).”

The Bucks are still going to have home-court advantage in the first round, and they are on the opposite side of the East bracket from the Celtics, but this has been the team’s most frustrating season in recent memory. The only way for those struggles to be forgotten is a strong postseason performance. The Bucks’ recent play suggests that might not be the case, so they need to take the next week seriously if they want to reverse course on this season and put themselves in position to make a deep run.

“We’re going to work hard,” Rivers said. “We need work, but we’re also going to get some rest because we might not be playing until Sunday. And if that’s true, we’ll have a lot of prep time.”

(Photo of Damian Lillard: Stephen M. Dowell / Orlando Sentinel/ Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

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