Here's a quick, statistically-minded preview of the Orlando Magic's coming playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks. Since we only learned today that Orlando drew Atlanta, I didn't have much time to go as deep as I wanted to. But in looking at the numbers, not to mention the product on the floor, it's clear that Orlando has a solid advantage on the Hawks, who are ill-equipped to beat them in a long series.
As a reminder, the Magic won the first three meetings by 17, 32, and 18 points before losing the fourth at the buzzer. Last season, they won by 4, 34, and 6 after dropping to Atlanta by 14 on opening night. Recent history is not on the Hawks' side here.
The first thing to look at is the four factors, which will really jump out at you. The Hawks finished 2nd in the league in offensive rating this season, scoring 111.9 points per 100 possessions thanks to good ball control (1st in turnover rate) and an ability to create second chances (5th in offensive rebounding rate). But take a look at how they fared against Orlando:
|Team||Efficiency||eFG%||FT Rate||OReb%||TO Rate|
|Green denotes a stat better than the team's season average;|
red denotes a stat worse than the team's season average.
The Magic made the Hawks worse than ordinary by keeping the Hawks off the offensive glass and away from the foul line. Here's a stat for you: in 3 of the four games against Atlanta, the Hawks fared worse than their average in each of the four factors.
Orlando also has a sea of red up there, but that's a bit deceptive because those figures are only slightly worse than its average, whereas the Hawks' are dramatically worse.
If we're talking keys, well, for Orlando it's obviously Dwight Howard. Though he shot markedly worse from the field against the Hawks than he did overall (55.1% to a league-leading 61.2%), he had more opportunities, and was thus Orlando's leading scorer in the season series. He posted 21 points, 16.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 3.5 blocks. Al Horford, the Hawks' All-Star center, has the build of a power forward and is ill suited to check Howard, despite his obvious defensive skill. Zaza Pachulia, his backup, has the physical strength but not the mobility, so he's not a better bet. Don't be surprised if Hawks coach Mike Woodson dusts off little-used defensive specialist Jason Collins in this series. He takes charges, pushes his opponents off their spots, and generally makes life difficult. But he's such an offensive liability, and he picks up so many fouls, that the Hawks can scarcely afford to leave him on the floor for long periods of time.
Against Atlanta, Howard averaged 7.3 shot attempts at the rim and an additional 12.3 free throws. He'll have his way inside, provided he can stay out of foul trouble. Those issues famously limited him in the Magic's previous series against the Charlotte Bobcats, but against Atlanta, it shouldn't be so pesky; he averaged a foul every 10.5 minutes against the Hawks, which is slightly better than his season average of a foul every 9.9 minutes.
His dominance of the interior isn't limited to the offensive end. As noted above, Orlando shut the Hawks down on the offensive glass in the season series. That's largely due to Howard, who posted defensive rebounding rates of 50.2 and 51.7 in the two most recent meetings. He's grabbing half of Atlanta's misses... and the Hawks have missed more than 60% of their field goals against Orlando overall. Atlanta doesn't appear to have an answer for him. And we should acknowledge that in the second meeting, a 32-point blowout win for Orlando, Marcin Gortat corralled 40.2% of available defensive boards in 25 minutes. Strong, strong work from the Magic's centers, who are too much for the Hawks' personnel to handle on the backboards.
One way Orlando can keep the pressure on Atlanta's defense is by spacing the floor with Rashard Lewis and Ryan Anderson at power forward. Josh Smith finished second in Defensive Player of the Year balloting due to his eye-popping steal/block totals (3.7 combined per game), and he's a monster waiting to reject any offering from the weak side. But he has far more ground to cover than usual if he has to hang with Lewis and Anderson at the arc, and he has to hang with them. In the three games against Atlanta in which both players appeared, they combined to shoot 12-of-29 (41.4%) from three-point territory. And, throughout his career, Anderson's really lit up the Hawks, as I explained here.
It might be dangerous to read too deeply into regular-season results, though. On both their visits to Orlando, the Hawks had won emotional games the night before in Boston. That's a rough bit of scheduling, and that the Hawks faced it twice is unfortunate for them. I'm willing to give Atlanta the benefit of the doubt, especially offensively. Leading scorer Joe Johnson and Sixth Man award-winner Jamal Crawford, on whom Atlanta relies for much of its offense, went M.I.A. against Orlando, and I'm inclined to believe they'll perform slightly better in the postseason. How bad were those two against the Magic? They combined for 28.8 points per game on 43.6% True Shooting, compared to 39.3 points on 55.6% True Shooting overall this season.
So the question for Atlanta, offensively, is this: how can they compensate for those extra 10-12 points per game that Johnson and Crawford aren't providing? That's not something easily answered. And on the other side of the ball, they have to stop Howard, keep Jameer Nelson out of the lane, and account for the Magic's 8 three-point shooters.
Ultimately, Orlando has too many advantages for Atlanta to counter, even when accounting for a possible uptick in the productivity and efficiency of the Hawks' top two scorers. My official prediction is that Orlando takes this series in 5 hard-fought games, and advances to its second straight Eastern Conference Finals.