To longtime readers of this site, Eddy Rivera needs no introduction. For over a year he posted regularly here, until moving on to the TrueHoop Network to launch MagicBasketball.net last month. Here, we've exchanged emails to preview the Magic's upcoming playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks, as we did with the last round against the Charlotte Bobcats. Our exchange produced this q-and-a.
Ben Q. Rock: The Magic swept their series against the league's best defensive team, while the Hawks needed 7 games to dispatch a scrappy outfit missing its franchise player. How much do you read into those circumstances when forecasting this series? It seems like Atlanta doesn't have much reason for optimism here.
Eddy Rivera: I'm a little surprised the Atlanta Hawks didn't take care of the Milwaukee Bucks sooner than expected. After the first two games in Atlanta, it seemed like the Hawks were poised to end the series in four or five games but give credit to the Bucks for being, as you stated, a scrappy outfit and not giving up when they had every right to do so. Atlanta does struggle on the road (19-22 during the regular season) so maybe that was the issue, when trying to ascertain why they struggled, at times, against Milwaukee.
As for the Orlando Magic, it still boggles my mind that they swept the Charlotte Bobcats with almost little to no production from Dwight Howard. But if you look closely at the numbers, it's pretty clear why the Magic were able to accomplish the feat. Look no further than Jameer Nelson. Simple as that. Nelson was a man possessed against the Bobcats and the main reason why, despite Howard's foul troubles and Vince Carter's struggles offensively, Orlando was able to sweep Charlotte.
With all that being said, does that mean the Magic will sweep the Hawks? Most likely not. Atlanta is a very good team and they should present some challenges for Orlando. However, the reason why the Magic will probably defeat the Hawks and go on to the Eastern Conference Finals isn't because of how each team performed in the first round. It'll be because Orlando is a nightmare matchup for Atlanta, and has been for a while.
BQR: Charlotte's bench outperformed the Magic's in the first round on the whole, though Mickael Pietrus was the top overall reserve in that series. Why? How can the second unit pick it up against the Hawks', which boasts this year's Sixth Man award winner, as well as one of the league's top backup centers?
ER: Minutes. The Magic's second unit needs playing time. Every single reserve for Orlando, excluding Marcin Gortat, saw his minutes reduced from the regular season in the first round against the Bobcats. When its playoff time, head coach Stan Van Gundy plays his best players a lot and rightfully so. The key for the Magic's bench players is that, when they do get minutes, they need to be extremely productive with them. That's asking for a lot, no question, but unless Van Gundy decides to give guys like Redick more minutes, then that's what's going to need to happen.
BQR: Vince Carter had an iffy first-round series and wasn't too great against the Hawks in the regular season, shooting 39% from the floor (though he did sink 41.7% of his three-pointers). Magic coach Stan Van Gundy had him run the offense late against the Bobcats, to which he responded well. What do you anticipate from Carter in this series?
ER: I could give you a variety of answers. I don't know, actually. It all, ultimately, depends on how Van Gundy utilizes Carter on offense against the Hawks. If Van Gundy uses Carter a lot in pick and rolls, exploiting the fact that Atlanta switches all the time defensively, then he should have a good series. If Carter is relied upon for spot-up shooting (which he will be, inevitably) ... eh, the results probably won't be as good. For the Magic's sake, Carter needs to start playing well now. Orlando still might not need him in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, given their opponent, but they will eventually.
BQR: Atlanta had the league's second-best offense this year, scoring 1.119 points per possession. Against Orlando, though, they managed just 0.917. Why do they struggle against the Magic? Is the answer as simple as, "Dwight Howard"?
The Magic take away the Hawks' greatest strength, which is their transition offense (that's a credit to Van Gundy's defensive philosophy, actually). As such, Atlanta is usually forced to try to shoot their way to victory and that strategy hasn't fared very well against Orlando. Howard is a big reason for that, plain and simple.
BQR: What is your formal prediction for the series? Feel free to elaborate in a sentence or two if you like.
ER: Magic in 5. It wouldn't surprise me if the series went six games, though.
Thanks again to Eddy for his time and consideration. You can check out his new digs at MagicBasketball.net.