By David Thorpe & Anthony Macri
The Orlando Magic will attempt to reclaim some of the good feelings they had two short years ago when they went to the NBA Finals. To do so, they reacquired an important player that was present during that run, Hedo Turkoglu, and also added others (Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson) over the course of the year to jumpstart a relatively mediocre offense. In the end, though, the Magic look no more ready for a championship push, and in some ways, they have taken a significant step back. MVP candidate Dwight Howard is still present, and is having one of the best seasons of his career, but the attack has seemed stale. Defensively, Orlando is still one of the best teams in the league, rated in the top five in both defensive rating (3rd) and opponents’ points per game (4th), but a relatively weak offense that leaves Magic fans wondering if they have any chance for postseason success.
Portions of the season for the Atlanta Hawks have been mystifying. They have had multiple long winning and losing streaks, and finished the season on a decided downturn, going just 14-20 during the months of February, March, and April (and finished the season on a six game losing streak). Atlanta finished the season as the only team in the league to have a winning record despite being outscored on the year (the only other postseason participant to be outscored over the course of the season is the Indiana Pacers, and they have a losing record). The Hawks get decent balance on the offensive end, using an attack that features Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and Al Horford doing the heavy lifting in the starting lineup while Jamal Crawford provides quick points off the bench.
Despite all the question marks surrounding their achievements this season, the Hawks still managed to defeat the Magic in three of four matchups, with their only loss to Orlando coming in the first two weeks of the season. It seems that, for a number of reasons, Atlanta matches up exceedingly well with Orlando. The games between the two have been relatively low scoring affairs, and Atlanta’s only significant statistical edges came on the glass (they outrebounded Orlando by a decent amount) and they also held the Magic 7 percent below their shooting percentage on the season.
This looks, at least on paper, to be the toughest series in the Eastern Conference to predict. Neither team is playing particularly well heading into the playoffs, and each has pieces that cause trouble for each other. This projects to be the longest series of the first round in the Eastern Conference.
Five keys to the series
Dwight Howard vs. Al Horford
Magic center Dwight Howard has had a pretty remarkable season. In addition to his career best 22.9 points per contest, Howard is also collecting over 1/5th of the rebounds available to him when he’s on the floor. In the past, Howard has really dominated Al Horford and the Hawks, and as a result the Magic have had considerable success. This season, though, things have been different. While Howard’s numbers themselves have been modestly down this season against the Hawks as compared to years past, Horford’s production this season is way up. He is averaging eight points per game more against the Magic than he did in the previous two seasons, and he seems much more comfortable in the way he approaches his matchup with Superman.
Hawks role-playing big Jason Collins has also had a role in Howard’s lack of production against Atlanta this season, as he helped set the tone with physical, hard-nosed play against the league’s most dominant post player. His health is in question, which will be problematic for Atlanta if he’s not able to play or play his best.
How Dwight Howard responds will make a huge difference in this series. If he can dominate his matchup with Al Horford (and Collins or Collins’ replacement), good things will happen for Orlando. If not, that is one huge part of the Magic attack that is neutralized.
Atlanta’s defense of ball screen action
In last season’s playoff matchup between these two teams, Jameer Nelson torched former Atlanta Hawk Mike Bibby. Using a variety of ball screen actions, Nelson penetrated nearly at will, set up teammates for open jump shots, and that coupled with a steady diet of Dwight Howard led to a 4-0 series rout of the Hawks.
This season, though, the biggest difference is the presence of guard Kirk Hinrich. Known as a strong on-ball defender, Hinrich does a much better job of physically fighting through screening action and challenging any shots or passes that come as a result of the screen. Hinrich’s ability to “guard his yard” (the three foot area immediately on either side of his body) will force Nelson to penetrate further than he had to last year to create a play, which can bother Orlando’s spacing, one of their strengths. The closer Nelson gets to the rim, the tougher it is for him to finish over Atlanta’s bigs, and as long as Atlanta brings their wings down to keep Howard off the glass in those situations, they can put up a better fight against Orlando’s core attack action.
The X Factors
Since Atlanta seems more able to handle at least facets of Orlando’s attack this year (Dwight Howard in the post and Jameer Nelson off of ball screens), it seems the Magic must look toward an x-factor to have a legitimate shot at advancing past the Hawks. Prior to the trade that brought him to Florida, Jason Richardson was one of the more productive players for the Phoenix Suns, with a PER hovering around the 17-18 mark. Since he came to Orlando, however, he has dropped to just over 15 in PER, and his overall production is down from what it was. While part of that can be attributed to the additional possessions Phoenix plays as a result of their pace, the real culprit is the lack of easy shots for Richardson. A natural slashing athlete, he is not as comfortable as a spot up shooter, and since he did a lot of his scoring in early offense for Phoenix, he has struggled to find a productive niche for Orlando. For the Magic to be successful in their matchup with Atlanta, however, it seems likely that Richardson will need to have more of an impact.
Just as interesting is Josh Smith improved perimeter shooting, is it enough to be a viable option at the small forward? Since it allows the Hawks to “go big,” Smith has much more of a chance to impact games on the defensive end as a help defender from the wing who is allowed to roam the weakside of the floor looking to clean up drives to the rim. Smith could be the kind of player who, like Luol Deng just a few years ago, parlays a monster playoff series into a larger role in the future. Or he could shoot Atlanta out of a game or two.
Battle of the boards
In last season’s conference semifinal matchup, the Hawks got beat up pretty badly on the boards by the Magic, as Orlando out-rebounded them by nearly ten rebounds per game. Interestingly, Atlanta continued their poor rebounding during the 2010-11 regular season, as they ranked 28th in the league in total rebounds. However, as you may have come to expect from their matchup with Orlando, this does not tell the whole story of how the Hawks have performed against the Magic this season.
Atlanta averaged under 40 rebounds per game this season overall. Only two opponents allowed them to average more than 45 rebounds per game – the Golden State Warriors and, you guessed it, the Orlando Magic. If that trend were to continue into the postseason, it would be a difficult statistic for Orlando to overcome. Because both teams are mostly mediocre on the offensive end, the ability to control possession of the ball (mainly by rebounding) will be a determining factor in wins and losses.
Momentum vs. Matchup
One of the grander arguments in sports is the value of being “hot” or “cold” entering a postseason. Having the momentum (or lacking that momentum) can seem a pretty big deal, and in some tournament formats, it really has a significant impact.
In the NBA Playoffs, however, how a team performs leading up to the postseason has no necessary correlation on how they will perform once there. In fact, the nature of a playoff series almost prevents a hot team from remaining hot. Keep in mind, a team with momentum has been playing a variety of opponents in an average of two games every 3.5 or so days. In the first round of the NBA Playoffs, however, a team plays a single opponent once every two to four days. This gives opponents more time to gameplan, change approaches, and prepare. It also makes victory in the postseason more about how one team matches up with the other rather than how well a team was performing coming into any given series.
In the case of the Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks, the implications for this reality are obvious. The Hawks barely limped into the postseason, playing under .500 basketball for a stretch coming in, and having lost six games in a row. While the Magic have not exactly been on a tear themselves, their recent results were significantly better than those in Atlanta. However, the way these two teams have matched up throughout the season would suggest an entirely different result. How these competing bits of conventional wisdom interact will yield the winner in this series, one that should be competitive and hotly contested.
Prediction: Magic in six