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Monday, May 03, 2010

Orlando Versus Atlanta Preview

Eastern Conference Second Round

#2 Orlando (59-23) vs. #3 Atlanta (53-29)

Season series: Orlando, 3-1

Atlanta can win if…Atlanta's athletic frontcourt can contain Dwight Howard without resorting to double teams that open up Orlando's armada of three point shooters. The Hawks must get stops and control their defensive backboard so that they can score in transition and not rely on their erratic half court offense versus Orlando's underrated defense. Joe Johnson is Atlanta's best player and he must perform at an All-NBA level; he scored just eight points in game seven versus the Milwaukee Bucks (though he did play strong defense versus John Salmons) and that kind of output will not get it done versus the reigning Eastern Conference champions. Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford ranked second on the Hawks in scoring during the regular season but he did not shoot well in round one versus Milwaukee and he has generally not been an efficient scorer throughout his career; for Atlanta to beat the Magic, Crawford must average at least 17-18 ppg while shooting a good percentage from the field and from three point range.

Orlando will win because…this is a terrible matchup for the Hawks, who have gone just 2-6 versus the Magic in the past two seasons. The Hawks' athleticism gives the Celtics fits but the Magic are easily athletic enough to deal with the high flying Hawks. The Magic are renowned for Howard's individual defensive prowess and for their three point shooting but two overlooked reasons for their success are their team passing and their team defense. The Magic do not have one dominant playmaker but most of their key players pass the ball very well. Defensively, their rotations are very good, aided by the fact that Howard is ever present on the backline to erase any mistakes.

Other things to consider: As I have mentioned in several articles over the past few years, if I were coaching against the Magic my primary defensive game plan would be to single cover Howard, foul him to prevent any dunks/layups and stay at home on the three point shooters. I would only double team him selectively--based on which personnel are on the court for both teams in terms of three point shooters for Orlando and mobile defenders for the opposing team--and then I would do so on his first dribble instead of trapping him when he is stationary and can easily see over defenders to make the correct pass; Howard does not get a ton of assists but he is good at making a solid pass to a receiver who then makes the next pass to an open shooter on the weak side.

My reasoning is part strategic and part psychological: the strategic aspect is that Orlando has so many good three point shooters that the Magic will destroy you if you just let them attempt wide open, warmup jumpers; the psychological aspect is that Howard does not have the mindset of a dominant scorer nor are the Magic accustomed to using him in that fashion. I don't think that it would be a comfortable scenario for Howard or his teammates if the bulk of their offensive possessions involved Howard going one on one in the post: the Magic do of course throw the ball to Howard in the post but that is almost a sucker play designed to entice opposing teams to trap him in order to free up the Magic's three point shooters. In the 2009 NBA Finals, the Lakers pretty much defended Howard straight up and by doing so they shut down Orlando's perimeter game; the Pistons also largely used this approach when they beat the Magic in the 2007 and 2008 playoffs. Of course, in order for this strategy to work you have to deny Howard dunks and layups either by playing good position defense (the way that Rasheed Wallace used to guard Howard when Wallace played for the Pistons) or by fouling Howard to prevent any easy shots; for the latter approach to work a team must have enough depth to potentially sacrifice one or two big men to foul trouble.

There are many interesting players and matchups to watch in this series but I will be particularly focused on Vince Carter and Josh Smith; they will rarely if ever guard each other but each one can potentially have a major impact on the outcome of this series. Eight-time All-Star Carter has never advanced past the second round of the playoffs. Carter gets a bum rap at times from the media and fans but the best way for him to change negative perceptions about his career is to be a key contributor on a championship team. Smith is just 24 years old but he is already a six year veteran and he has yet to make the All-Star team or lead his squad past the second round of the playoffs. From a skill set standpoint he has no weaknesses other than free throw shooting and three point shooting--and this season he finally came to his senses and stopped launching so many shots from long distance, an adjustment that enabled him to shoot a career-high .505 from the field. Smith was disappointed that he did not make the All-Star team this year but if he wants to earn that honor in 2011 then he needs to play at a very high level during this year's playoffs. The way to prove that you merit All-Star and/or All-NBA consideration is to show that you can control the game against elite teams during playoff competition.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:15 AM

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