Let's say goodbye to the past. The future is here, at last.
2009 NBA Playoffs.
Tomorrow, the postseason begins in the Association and for the Orlando Magic, the time is now. Let's face it .. the Magic are going to have a difficult road (pun intended) in trying to reach the NBA Finals. If Orlando wants to play on the league's highest stage in June, the team will have to trek through Boston and Cleveland to do so. Difficult, but not impossible. Unlikely, but possible. That's why they play the games, folks, because anything is possible.
To preview the festivities, I corralled some of the brightest minds who analyze and cover basketball. Each individual I interviewed provided their personal and unique perspective on the playoff outlook for the Orlando Magic. I like to thank each of the participants beforehand for taking the time to answer my questions. Their opinions are highly respected and valued.
Before I unveil the roundtable discussion, in case you'd like to read up on my playoff preview and prediction for the Orlando Magic, you can do so here. Enjoy.
Now onto the fun. Here are the experts I gathered to provide their take on things.
- Bradford Doolittle, Basketball Prospectus
- Kyle Hightower, Orlando Sentinel
- Jon Nichols, Basketball-Statistics
- Neil Paine, Basketball-Reference
- UPDATE: Kevin Pelton, Basketball Prospectus
- David Steele, Orlando Magic
Which Orlando Magic player do you feel is most vital to the team's success during the playoffs?
Bradford Doolittle: Rafer Alston -- I think the Magic have shown that they tend to be as good as its point guard play.
Kyle Hightower: Dwight Howard is the Magic’s best player, but I think point guard Rafer Alston is probably the most vital to their success. When Jameer Nelson went down with his shoulder injury and the Magic first went searching to find a replacement point guard, their initial thought process was to just find a serviceable body to plug the hole and hope for the best. That is why I think Otis Smith thought he’d be happy by trading for Tyronn Lue. But he quickly realized that with Lue running the offense, it was going to be a struggle to accomplish any of their preseason goals. Alston is by no means a carbon of Nelson either, but he’s proven to be a lot more than just serviceable. With Alston’s skill set, Van Gundy hasn’t had to give up on the pick-and-rolls that are staples of the Magic’s offense. More importantly he is better equipped to create offense for Orlando’s shooters as well as make sure that Dwight Howard gets his touches as well.
Jon Nichols: The easy answer is Dwight Howard. Without him, the Magic's defense is ordinary, and the three-pointers aren't so open. If the Magic are gong to make it to the Finals, Howard will have to be at his absolute best.
Neil Paine: Dwight Howard is the obvious choice, and as the Magic's best player he's naturally the cornerstone of everything that happens for Orlando in these playoffs. However, I think the play of Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu might prove even more important to the Magic. While Howard's numbers are essentially the same no matter the outcome, there is a big gap between the performance of Lewis and Turkoglu in wins vs. their performance in losses. Simply put, when those two play well, the Magic win; when they don't, the team loses. So I think how far they go will depend a lot on the output of that duo.
Kevin Pelton: I'm going with Courtney Lee. His likely matchups, should Orlando reach the Eastern Conference Finals, are Andre Iguodala, Ray Allen and LeBron James. Toto, I don't think we're in the Sun Belt Conference anymore. The Magic doesn't need Lee to stop those players, but he must make them work and slow them down. At the other end, Lee's ability to stretch the floor and keep defenses honest will be critical to the Orlando offense. Defenses are going to make Lee beat them, so he'll have to prove his poor April shooting was nothing but a blip in a fine rookie season.
David Steele: We pretty much know what to expect from the Magic's big three, Howard, Lewis and Turkoglu, so I'd say the play of the starting back court will be key to the team's success. Rafer Alston is still a relative newcomer, still exploring how best to play with his teammates. Lee has had a terrific rookie season, but has never experienced the rigors of the NBA playoffs.
Could you break down the first round matchup, which sees the Magic paired with the 76ers? What is your official prediction?
BD: The Sixers are a challenge because they are a team that attacks the rim and gets to the line a lot. The Magic do such a great job of pinching off three-point shooters and forcing the opponent into the lane where Dwight Howard holds sway. The Sixers don't even look for the three that often, preferring to drive to the hoop or settle for midrange jumpers. (Tough Howard didn't have great games against Philly in the regular season, by his standards, as they seemed to limit his touches and get him into foul trouble.) Orlando won all three games between the teams, but two were in the early going when the Sixes were trying to rebuild their style around Elton Brand. So I think it's an interesting stylistic matchup. I think ultimately it'll be similar to the Sixers' first-round series against Detroit last season. They may steal a game, perhaps even two, but Orlando is just too superior overall for it to go any further than that.
KH: I think the Magic caught a break by picking up Philly in the first round. Though they played the Magic within two points back in November it was in part because of a strong effort from Elton Brand. Brand, of course, is unavailable after having season-ending surgery. Without the added duties of playing Brand on defense, Rashard Lewis can just concentrate on offense and roam around the 3-point line he likes so much. I think Andre Iguodala and Andre Miller are strong offensive presences, themselves, but Samuel Dalembert will get eaten up by Howard inside and make the difference in the series outcome. I think the Magic will take it in five games.
JN: The toughest matchup for the Magic [would have been] the Pistons. Detroit's clearly the weaker team, but they'd play with a lot of confidence against the Magic. I think the Bulls [would have been] the easiest matchup. Howard would dominate their bigs. I think they'd beat the 76ers in 5, the Bulls in 4, and the Pistons in 6.
NP: The thing that stands out to me about each of those matchups is how much better Orlando is defensively than the opponent -- at 102.1 PA/100 possessions, they're going to be at least 5 points/possession better defensively than the other team, and could actually be closer to 6 or 7. That's huge, as it keeps the pressure off of Orlando and puts it squarely on the opponent to get stops at the other end. That's the way you want things to be. So the Magic are almost certain to win all of those series in at least 5 games [vs. 76ers, Bulls, and Pistons], if not in clean sweeps, even with the Detroit Hex (though it doesn't look like they'll play the Pistons anyway).
KP: I think Orlando has to feel pretty good to be matched up with Philadelphia instead of potentially facing a hotter Chicago team. Where the Sixers pose potential matchup problems is against teams with traditional fours who have to leave the paint to cover Thaddeus Young. Obviously, that's not going to be a problem for a Magic team that does the same thing with Rashard Lewis. All the matchups seem fairly favorable for Orlando, which can deploy Courtney Lee against Iguodala and have him focus at the defensive end, with Rafer Alston capably matching up with Andre Miller. Naturally, Philadelphia doesn't really have an answer for Dwight Howard.
There's an eerie symmetry in that the 76ers' strengths on offense are offensive rebounding percentage (second in the league) and getting to the free-throw line (fourth), which match up perfectly with Orlando's defensive strengths--the Magic ranks an identical second and fourth in defensive rebounding and avoiding fouling opponents.
The only real cause for concern for Orlando is the way the team has played while banged up in the month of April, but the research I've done really doesn't show this to mean much come the postseason. If the Magic dispatches of Philadelphia, it will be forgotten in a week or two. My pick is Orlando in five games.
DS: A healthy Magic team [would have had] success against any of the three potential first round playoff foes [76ers, Bulls, Pistons]. Obviously, Detroit, on paper, represents the greatest threat, however, in a best of seven series, I believe the Magic would prevail. In some ways, going through the Pistons could [have been] psychologically beneficial for the team, a confidence boost for future rounds.
Likewise, what is your official prediction for Orlando, overall? The Magic ended up with the #3 seed, which means no home-court advantage against the Boston Celtics in the semifinals (assuming both teams advance). How far do you think the Orlando Magic will go in the Playoffs?
BD: The Kevin Garnett situation in Boston has me fairly convinced that the Orlando is going to beat Boston in the second round. However, I think this is Cleveland's year, so I look for the Cavs to end Orlando's run in the East final.
KH: While home court advantage is certainly big, I don’t think that the Magic would be at a complete disadvantage having to matchup with the Celtics in the second round without it. If Kevin Garnett were going into the playoffs at 100 percent, that might change my mind. But with KG not at his best, I think it makes the defending champs a lot more vulnerable against a team like the Magic. If Orlando does get to the second round and can slip past the C’s, though they probably matchup well with the Cavs, I have to give LeBron the edge in the series. Cleveland has been all but unstoppable at home in the Q and James has a killer instinct that I’m not sure Dwight is ready to embrace at this point.
JN: Unfortunately, I see them out in the second round. The Celtics are just too tough. If they get by the Celtics though, I can see them losing to the Lakers in the Finals.
NP: They're capable of beating Boston, they've proved that much this season, although the outcome of that matchup will hinge largely on the health of Garnett's knee. Winning at least one game in Boston is huge. If the Big 3 are at full strength and the C's play up to their talent, Orlando probably has a 33% of winning the series. But if the Magic go back to Orlando tied 1-1, it's closer to a 50-50 proposition. So you see, neutralizing Boston's advantage at home is key. Still, there's little more than a 1-in-4 chance they can win a best-of-7 series vs. Cleveland; even if they manage to slip past Boston, their journey almost certainly ends with a loss to the Cavs.
KP: With the news that Kevin Garnett will be unable to start the playoffs and his return is uncertain, the Magic has to be the favorites to beat Boston. I would think Garnett would have to be pretty close to full strength for the Celtics to have a reasonable shot at winning the series. His presence--or absence--is much more important than home-court advantage.
A Cleveland-Orlando Eastern Conference Finals would be very entertaining. The way the Magic has played against the league's elite teams, highlighted by the blowout win over the Cavaliers earlier this month, offers a reasonable chance of pulling off the upset. Ultimately, though, I'd lean toward Cleveland winning the series.
DS: The Magic match up well against Cleveland, having won 6 of 8 regular season games against the Cavs. The match up with Boston is dicier, especially if Kevin Garnett is healthy. The key in either series would be winning game one or two on the road and take care of business in 5 or 6 games. Winning a game 7 in Boston or Cleveland would be a tall order.
I like to thank Bradford, Kyle, Jon, Neil, Kevin, and David, each, for participating in this roundtable discussion. Their insight was excellent.