The Milwaukee Bucks’ hopes of winning their first NBA title since 1971 got off to a rocky start.
Nikola Vucevic scored a playoff career-high 35 points and had 14 rebounds, and the Orlando Magic stunned the top-seeded Bucks 122-110 on Tuesday in the league’s fan-free Disney World bubble.
Terrence Ross scored 18 points, Gary Clark added 15 and D.J. Augustin had 11 points and 11 assists for the eighth-seeded Magic, who were 14-point underdogs.
Orlando took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, an intriguing result given that the Bucks can’t rely on home-court advantage in these pandemic-altered playoffs.
“We don’t care what other people have to say,” Vucevic said. “We focus on ourselves and we came out and played a great game on both ends of the floor.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo finished with 31 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists for Milwaukee. Last season’s MVP was held without a field goal over the final 11 minutes and seemed to get more frustrated as the fourth quarter went on.
“You have to really be ready for what they do,” Vucevic said. “Especially us against a team like Milwaukee where we have to make sure we know their stuff and we are prepared for everything. Tonight, we definitely were on top of that. We did a good job executing the game plan.”
The Bucks came into the postseason as the favorites to win the NBA title. But they went 3-5 in seeding games in the bubble, and that sluggish play carried over into the postseason.
George Hill said the Bucks needed to do some “soul searching.”
Antetokounmpo didn’t go that far, saying the Bucks’ energy level was fine, but that they need to make more shots. Milwaukee made 43% from the field and was 14 of 42 from 3-point land.
“There’s no magic wand to point and things are going to change,” Antetokounmpo said. “You’ve got to come out, play hard, play even harder, play together and have fun.”
Milwaukee swept the season series against Orlando, winning four games by an average of 17 points, but struggled with the Magic’s stingy defense, which caused 16 turnovers and repeatedly clogged the lane, forcing Antetokounmpo to settle for jump shots.
The Bucks’ frustration was evident when center Brook Lopez stomped on a chair — and then kicked it — in the bench area during a timeout.
“Obviously, our main focus was try to make it hard on Giannis, to protect the paint,” Vucevic said. “We did that as a team. Gary (Clark) did a great job fighting him and we were able to help.”
The Magic led most of the game.
Orlando used an early 15-2 run to build a 51-33 lead midway through the second quarter behind 16 points from Vucevic.
Milwaukee made several runs in the second half, but the Magic had an answer every time.
Vucevic had 14 points in the third quarter, scoring down in the low post against smaller defenders and stepping out to knock down 3s against bigger men as the Magic carried a 13-point lead into the fourth quarter.
The Bucks trimmed the lead to six in the fourth, but Ross had a dunk and a layup off hard cuts to the basket and Augustin and Vucevic added 3s to push the lead back to 14. Evan Fournier, who went scoreless for three quarters, delivered the knockout punch with three 3-pointers in the final five minutes.
The challenge for the Magic will be to maintain their intensity. A year ago they beat the eventual NBA champion Raptors to kick off their opening-round series but lost the next four.
“We came out with a huge victory,” Vucevic said. ”Again, it’s just one game. We’ve got to move on.”
Magic: Played without guards Aaron Gordon (strained left hamstring) and Michael Carter-Williams (strained left foot). Gordon is expected to return before Carter-Williams.
Bucks: Antetokoumpo played his first game in a week. He was suspended for the final seeding game for head-butting Washington’s Moe Wagner during Milwaukee’s Aug. 11 win over the Wizards.
Vucevic finished 15 of 24 from the field, including 5 of 8 from 3-point range. He also had four assists.
“He played out of his mind,” Antetokounmpo said.
“He was just terrific,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said. “He’s played very well down here. … He made big play after big play today. But I’m not surprised. Because his preparation for this playoff series, and I think it will show, he’s on top of things.”
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer doesn’t believe playing in the bubble is impacting his team.
“It’s always great to play in front of your fans and feed off their energy a little bit but we’ve all been down here in the bubble for a while so I think everybody should understand how to sustain a run and prevent runs,” Budenholzer said.
The series resumes Thursday night.
Vucevic, Magic upset top-seeded Bucks in series opener