By John Carroll
When the season began four months ago, everyone expected the Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls to be the top two teams in the NBA. No one knew how the rest of the field would fare, but the Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic or Atlanta Hawks were expected to slide into the third position. And although everyone acknowledged that the Indiana Pacers were a young, talented team, no one expected them to improve as quickly as they did this season. They finished the season with 42-24 record and have their highest seed since the 2003-04 season, when they were the top seed. This has been a great step forward for the organization, but after pushing the Bulls in the first round last year, right now they are looking to win their first-round series with the Magic.
The Orlando Magic franchise is a mess. The Magic have had so much turmoil this season with the Dwight Howard soap opera that their season cannot end fast enough. With Howard out of the lineup, it is hard to imagine this team winning a first-round series against any opponent. The Magic have struggled to defend and score since the departure of Howard, and these problems will be compounded in the playoffs. For everyone’s sake, the Magic should hope for a quick and painless exit in the first round. The Magic are expected to get Hedo Turkoglu back for the playoffs. He will play with a mask to protect his fractured cheekbone. Turkoglu has been a nonfactor this season for the Magic, so his return does not improve their chances to defeat the Pacers. The Magic defeated the Pacers three out of four times this season, and beat them twice in Indiana, so this looked like a good matchup several weeks ago. But without Howard in the lineup, coach Stan Van Gundy will have to go to the drawing board and add some new wrinkles and twists to his game plan to compete with the Pacers.
• The Pacers are only an average offensive team, scoring 97.7 points per game, tied for 12th in the NBA.
• The Pacers need to take advantage of Orlando’s loss of Dwight Howard. The Magic allowed opponents to score 102.0 points per game in their last seven losses. Opponents have shot 53.0 percent from the field over that time.
• The Pacers utilize the 3-point shot in their offensive arsenal, shooting 36.8 percent from the 3-point line. They attempt 16 3-point field goals per game.
• The Pacers get to the foul line, which is a major bonus in the playoffs. They attempt 25.9 free throws per game, which is third in the NBA. They shoot 78.2 percent from the foul line. Danny Granger leads the team in free throw attempts per game with 4.7, followed by Tyler Hansbrough at 4.2 and Roy Hibbert at 3.7.
• The Pacers are a very low assist team, averaging only 18.4 assists per game, 28th in the NBA.
• The Pacers will pound the offensive glass in this series. They finished sixth in the NBA in offensive rebounds with 12.5 per game. In this series, where they have a height advantage across the board, they will attack the glass for second shots relentlessly.
• The Pacers will attack via low-post touches to Roy Hibbert, attempting to establish a dominant low-post presence due to the absence of Howard. Hibbert cannot settle in the low post; he must get deep low-post position and get the ball to the rim. He is shooting 49.7 percent from the field this season. His success will be predicated on his field goal attempts against smaller, inferior post defenders Glen Davis and Daniel Orton. It will be hard for the Magic to double Hibbert because they will be exposed on the perimeter versus the shooting of Granger, Paul George and George Hill.
• The Pacers will post mismatches across the board. They will post George versus J.J. Redick, Granger versus Jason Richardson, and David West if there is a definitive mismatch.
• The Pacers will utilize their movement offense versus Orlando. They will use set plays where they get hard cuts to the rim by Granger followed by a pin-down for a jump shot. This will put pressure on the Magic defense to defend due to the ability of Granger to post initially or come off the screen and make jump shots.
• Indiana will also utilize pick-and-rolls with Hill/Darren Collison and West, and will run numerous catch-and-shoot plays for Granger, George and Leandro Barbosa.
• Orlando struggles to defend the perimeter, and the Pacers will attack the Magic with Granger and George. The Magic do not have a perimeter defender to guard either one of these two players one-on-one. The Pacers can put a ton of pressure on the Magic at these two positions.
• The Pacers will utilize their depth to wear down the Magic defensively. Although the Pacers do not have a superstar on their roster, they will play 9-10 players, with eight of those players averaging over nine points per game. The Pacers will bring Collison, Barbosa and Hansbrough off the bench and will tax the Magic’s ability to match their firepower.
• When looking at the Magic, the season numbers are not as important as the numbers without Dwight Howard. Since April 1, the Magic have played 14 games, 12 without Howard; they are only 4-8 without him.
• In those eight losses, the Magic struggled to score, averaging only 89.6 points per game and shooting 41.3 percent from the field.
• The Magic also really struggled from the 3-point line in those losses, shooting only 30.0 percent. Since Howard is out, teams do not have to double the post and are locking on perimeter shooters.
Ryan Anderson has been drastically hurt by the loss of Howard. Teams
refuse to leave him, and in the past four games he has shot only 30.0 percent from the 3-point line. During the season, he shot 39.3 percent from the 3-point line.
The Magic must run multiple pick-and-rolls versus the Pacers to combat their size differential. They cannot throw the ball into the post and cannot beat opponents off the dribble, so they must put the bigger, slower Pacers defenders into movement. Look for the Magic to run every type of pick-and-roll (drags in transition, middles, step-ups, sides) and set multiple picks in the same possession. They must get both Hibbert and West away from the paint and get them involved in pick-and-roll coverage. They are both slow and below-average pick-and-roll defenders. This is their best chance of scoring versus the Pacers.
• The Magic will also run some catch-and-shoot action for Redick and Jason Richardson.
• If Turkoglu is 100 percent healthy the Magic must utilize him as a ball handler, facilitator and scorer. The schedule proved too much for him during the regular season and he was extremely unproductive. The Magic must hope that Turkoglu can get himself re-energized and become productive offensively in this series. If the Magic can put the ball in his hands and run pick-and-rolls for him, it will give them another important weapon.
• The Magic love to run post-ups for Jason Richardson, but he will be negated in this series due to the height and length of Paul George and Danny Granger. If at some point the Magic do have a mismatch at the guard or forward position, look for them to attack with post isos.
George Hill: Hill has taken over the point guard duties in Indiana recently due to a groin injury to Collison. Hill has been spectacular during that period, averaging 13.9 points per game, 5.3 assists and 3.7 rebounds, while shooting 45 percent from the field. The team finished the regular season with a record of 6-3 with Hill as the starting point guard. The combination of Hill and Collison will be too much for Jameer Nelson.
Jameer Nelson: If the Magic have any chance of pulling off an upset in this series, Nelson will have to play at an extremely high level. He is a scoring point guard and will have to be extremely aggressive against both Hill and Collison. Nelson averaged 14.6 points per game and 7.4 assists in the last 10 games for the Magic.
Paul George: George is one of the next superstars of the NBA. He is a blossoming star and coach Frank Vogel has extended his role with the playoffs approaching. Vogel has extended George's minutes by playing him more with the second unit, also hoping this will help Collison play well with the second unit.
J.J. Redick: Redick is one of the most improved players in the NBA. He has worked diligently to find a place in the Magic rotation. He has been inserted into the starting lineup with Turkoglu out. Redick has seen his minutes rise while averaging 16 points per game and shooting 46.2 in last 10 games. He has suffered with a lack of good 3-point shots recently, shooting only 28.5 percent (8-of-28) in the team's last seven losses.
Danny Granger: This should be a mismatch for the Pacers if Turkoglu cannot play and the Magic play Richardson at small forward. Granger is the Pacers' leading scorer at 18.7 points per game. Granger is a scorer who has tremendous shooting ability. He attempts 5.2 3-point field goals per game, shooting 38.1 percent from behind the line. He leads the team in free throw attempts (4.7 per game). The Pacers need Granger to be extremely aggressive against the smaller Richardson and dominate this matchup.
Jason Richardson: Richardson is a scorer, averaging 11.6 points per game. The Magic will play two guards alongside Nelson, with Richardson having to match the opponent's small forward. Richardson has shot only 40.8 percent from the field this season. In order for the Magic to win this series, his numbers must improve. He is averaging 14.2 points per game and shooting 41.9 percent over the last 10 games for the Magic.
David West: The Pacers acquired West in the offseason to bring veteran experience to this young roster. He needs to assert himself in the playoffs. West has averaged 12.8 points per game and 6.6 rebounds during the regular season. With Hibbert, West and Hansbrough, the Pacers have a strong, versatile frontcourt.
Ryan Anderson: Anderson has had a terrific season for the Magic as the perfect complement to Dwight Howard. He averaged 16.1 points per game and 7.7 rebounds during the regular season and has been directly affected by the loss of Howard. Teams lock on to Anderson and he has not been able to get clean 3-point looks. He shot only 24.0 percent (12-of-50) during the last seven Magic losses.
Roy Hibbert: This should be the biggest mismatch for the Pacers given Howard's absence. Hibbert averaged 12.8 points and 8.8 rebounds during the regular season. Hibbert needs to be in attack mode with deep post catches and must get to the rim. He cannot settle when he catches the ball. Hibbert, who averaged only 3.7 free throw attempts during regular season, needs to get to the free throw line for the Pacers.
Glen Davis: The Magic have gone without a center since Howard has been injured. They have utilized two power forwards (Davis and Anderson). Whether they can do that against Hibbert is another story. Davis has been up and down all season for the Magic, but in the last 10 games he has been terrific. Davis' numbers have skyrocketed during that time, when he averaged 30.1 minutes, 14.8 points and 8.1 rebounds while shooting 50.5 percent from the field.
Darren Collison: A big key for the Pacers in the playoffs is the ability of Collison to adjust to his new role. Collison may play the same number of minutes for the Pacers, but it may be with different combinations on the court. The depth of him and Hill should dominate the point guard matchup with Nelson.
Leandro Barbosa: Barbosa was a very good pickup for the Pacers at the trading deadline. He brings instant offense off the bench. Barbosa averaged 11.0 points over the entire season with the Raptors and Pacers. He has 3-point range (37.9 percent for the season).
Tyler Hansbrough: An excellent off-the-bench forward for the Pacers, Hansbrough has averaged 9.3 points per game and 4.4 rebounds. He needs to be decisive and nail midrange jumpers in order to be successful throughout playoffs.
Dahntay Jones: He was productive for the Pacers during the regular season but is going to be out of the regular rotation during the playoffs. He will be used if there are specific foul problems or needs. Look for him to get more time as a defensive stopper in the second round if the Pacers advance and play the Bulls or Heat.
Louis Amundson: Amundson is another big body Vogel can put on the floor. Amundson plays with energy, defends and attacks the offensive glass.
Hedo Turkoglu: Turkoglu may be ready and could possibly start for the Magic in their series with Indiana after missing the past 10 games with a cheekbone fracture. When he is at the top of his game, he is a terrific facilitator and shot-maker. He loves to use pick-and-rolls, and with his height, vision and passing skills, he can make productive plays for the Magic. The problem with Turkoglu is that he is not the same player in his return to Orlando as he was in his first stint. His numbers this season (10.9 points and 4.4 assists) are mediocre for a player of his caliber.
Daniel Orton: He may become an important role player for the Magic given the absence of Howard and the presence of Hibbert. Orton averaged 19.0 minutes, 4.8 points and 4.4 rebounds in the past five games.
Chris Duhon: Duhon has been a steady backup point guard for the Magic. He can defend, but with Howard out the Magic will need more from this position. They may turn to Ishmael Smith and Duhon may see his minutes dip.
Ishmael Smith: In his last six games, he has averaged 13.8 minutes and 4.3 points. Because of his speed and athleticism, he could be utilized in this series to defend Collison.
Quentin Richardson: Richardson will be utilized in the Magic’s three-guard rotation as a role player off the bench. He is an excellent spot-up shooter, but he won't get open looks without Howard in the lineup.
Von Wafer: Wafer has averaged 5.7 points per game for the Magic this season. He is shooting 40.0 percent from the 3-point line.
Prediction: Pacers in 5