(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic's season can end in disappointment tonight with a loss against the Atlanta Hawks. After falling behind, 3-1, in their playoff series, the Magic pounded Atlanta by 25 Tuesday night. The series shifts to Atlanta Thursday. Here, as a sort of preview, is a list of five things I'll pay particular attention to.
Overall, Orlando has outscored Atlanta by 14 points in the series, but through the first four games, the Hawks' edge in first quarters was plus-12. The doors fell off in Game Five, with the Magic doubling them up, 26-13, thanks to an 11-point outburst from J.J. Redick.
The Magic have shot 36.1 percent in first quarters and have scored more than 20 points twice in five games. If they get off to a decent start Thursday, they won't have to dig themselves out of a hole, with their season on the line and in a hostile environment, later. They'd also add pressure to Atlanta which, we hasten to point out, hasn't won a playoff series in less than the maximum number of games since Ronald Reagan's presidency. Dwight Howard had yet to turn 2.
The Magic held Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford to 13 points on 4-of-20 shooting in Game Five thanks to an adjustment they made defensively: as Zach McCann explains, they had Dwight Howard shade the strong side of the floor whenever either of those two touched the ball. In turn, the perimeter defenders assigned to Johnson and Crawford individually felt freer to play more aggressively.
...and Atlanta's Counter
The Hawks surely have watched plenty of footage of this adjustment and may have found a way to exploit it. Most obviously, they can leverage Howard's help defense against the Magic by having Howard's man cut to fill some open space, but Howard covers so much ground it may not matter; that the Hawks don't have a traditional center with a decent pair of hands only complicates the problem. But coach Larry Drew and his staff know what they're up against. I expect the Hawks won't be caught unawares against this same scheme again.
Through four games, Crawford outscored Orlando's bench by himself, 96-69, and that figure includes Gilbert Arenas' surprise 20-point performance in Game Four. The tables turned Tuesday, when Crawford scored 8 while the Magic's reserves scored 49. Redick had 14, Ryan Anderson had 11, and overall the second unit came alive. Should the shooting funks of Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu persist, the Magic's reserves will need to pick up the slack. And should they not? Orlando sure as heck needs to keep Crawford in line, lest he blast it yet again.
Orlando's starting small forward has played miserably, apart from his passing, against Atlanta. He's shooting 27.3 percent from the floor and averaging just 8 points in 33.6 minutes per game. He's tended to shoot when he should pass and to defer when he should shoot. Further, Josh Smith has toasted him at the other end of the floor, averaging 15.6 points and more than 5 foul shots per game; he'd be even more effective if he were more accurate at the line than 50 percent, but that's a separate issue.
The Magic's two wins in this series prove they can dispatch Atlanta even with Turkoglu struggling. But you have to believe, at least a little bit, that a strong outing from Turkoglu tonight--say an efficient 12 points, with 5 assists and few turnovers--could tip the balance back in Orlando's favor. He ought to be running the high screen-and-roll with Dwight Howard quite often, simply because it opens up everything in Orlando's arsenal.
Turk can take it to the rim himself, stop to pop a jumper, dish to Howard on the roll, dish to Brandon Bass (or Ryan Anderson, depending on who's playing power forward) filling the space Howard creates, dish to Jason Richardson in the corner, dish to Jameer Nelson up top or along the weak side wing, dribble along the baseline to force more defensive movement... you get the idea. No team can possibly take every option away, and especially not one playing Jason Collins, who's only marginally more mobile than the basket stanchion, at center.