Magic/Hawks Series Preview
Not a foregone conclusion.
by Tracy Weissenberg
In the Magic’s preseason game against the Hawks, one of the topics was whether and how often Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson would see playing time. Magic coach Stan Van Gundy had said, “I want to keep more flexibility alive, and if I take one of those guys and don’t play him, then all of a sudden you say this is a good situation, they’re not ready to go. So I got to give them playing time, at least some every night, so that they’re ready to go because then there’s nights when we may need one of them for 30 minutes, so I’m going to play them.”
Currently, Bass and Anderson are counted on to fill in the frontcourt when Dwight Howard gets into foul trouble. No longer can Marcin Gortat—arguably better than 70 percent of the NBA’s starting centers—come in to back up the two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
After sweeping the Hawks by an NBA record 25.3 ppg in the 2010 Conference Semifinals, the Magic have lost three of four against Atlanta this season. While the regular season doesn’t necessarily determine the playoffs, it should not be discounted either.
In 2009-10, the Hawks lost the regular season series against the Magic 3-1 and were outscored by an average of 16.3 points. This year, they outscored the Magic by 3.8 points, which is a +20.1 turnaround.
Despite the changes made since last season, Atlanta is realistically the same team and has dealt with the frustration of trying to achieve more with the same pieces. The Hawks finished the season with nine less wins, including three home losses by at least 30 points and a handful of other blowouts. Since it is common to hear MVP chants for opposing players at Philips Arena, perhaps it is not a disadvantage the Hawks start the series on the road. Atlanta is 24-17 at home, compared to 34-7 one year ago, and limped to the finish line with six straight losses.
In the other corner, the Magic are in-between identities. They no longer have the luxury of creating mismatches with any combination of Rashard Lewis, Marcin Gortat and Dwight Howard. They don’t have the tenacity of Matt Barnes or the perimeter defense of Mickael Pietrus.
I asked Jameer Nelson about the adjustment of having to play smaller than they had to last season. He references situations when Howard is in foul trouble when he says, “He’s the guy who we are, basically. We play through him offensively, and defensively, he’s always there. For the most part, guys who come in, they do a great job of relieving him when he gets in foul trouble.”
While Howard is likely the best center in the game, the Magic are still a jump shooting team. They led the league in three point field goals made and attempted, while ranking 27th with 20 assists per game. While threes can carry a team during the regular season, playoff basketball is more about well-timed shots beyond the arc rather than a reliance on them. If Howard is in foul trouble, or if those jump shots stop falling, the series between the Magic and Hawks may start to resemble the regular season—just as it did last year.
Even with the Jekyll and Hyde complex, the Hawks match up considerably better against the new-look Magic. For my prediction, I’m picking the Hawks in seven. However, I will add a disclaimer that due to Atlanta’s confounding inconsistency this season, I would not be surprised if the Magic won the series.
Atlanta’s offense has not had much flow with Hinrich running the point, but he takes some defensive pressure off Joe Johnson. Nelson often plays more like a shooting guard on a team in which many of the players don’t create their own shots. He has shown that he can take and make big shots; although his offense won’t be enough to carry the team, especially if it is to the detriment of Howard not getting touches or the other scorers getting cold. Hinrich has played in 34 postseason games and Nelson has played in 33. Those 67 games combined are still 13 less than the playoff experience of Mike Bibby.
In what was considered a down year, Johnson still averaged 18-4-4. He commands double-teams, and when his shot isn’t falling, can do a bit of everything else, including facilitate. Richardson attempted six three point field goals per game and shot nearly 40% from beyond the arc this season. He averaged 19 points with the Suns, but saw his average drop to 14 with the Magic.
Smith and Horford will be the starting forwards when Atlanta uses the ‘big lineup.’ Smith is the only player this season to total at least 1,000 points, 600 rebounds, 200 assists and 90 steals. His highlight caliber plays on both ends of the floor can prove to be an instant momentum change. Turkoglu has put together a solid season for the Magic, and his versatility as a point-forward is a big reason why the team reached the NBA Finals two seasons ago.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers commented on the Hawks’ style before a game in Atlanta, saying, “They’re an inverted transition team. You don’t see it very often where the bigs outrun the guards. Their bigs fly. Horford, I don’t know what motor he runs on, but it’s amazing.” It is becoming a common occurrence for the opposing coach to praise the Hawks’ fourth-year veteran and two-time All-Star. While Bass has proven to be a valuable starter, there is a reason the Hawks are making their fourth straight playoff appearance since Horford’s rookie season.
Howard’s gaudy stats include 23 points on almost 60% shooting, 14 rebounds and over 2 blocks per game. Likely on his way to a third straight Defensive Player of the Year title, he has shouldered the majority of the load after the trade. He averaged almost 40 minutes per game post All-Star break, which ranks second in the league and first among centers. In last season’s playoffs, Howard amassed 59 personal fouls in 14 games. With the Magic currently needing him on the floor at nearly all times, there is very little margin for error.
While Collins will have virtually no statistical impact on the game, Van Gundy called his defense against Howard the best he saw all season. The most relevant number for Collins is six, which is the number of fouls he has to give. His defense, along with the defensive efforts of Zaza Pachulia and the other Hawks bigs off the bench, is critical to whether the Hawks can limit Howard’s effectiveness.
Magic: 69.2 FT%, which is last in the NBA. (Howard averaged 59.6 FT% this season and 57.2 FT% career playoffs)
Hawks: 39.3 rebounds (28th) and 9.3 offensive rebounds (29th). (Hawks averaged 45.3 rebounds in four games vs the Magic this season)