So after a collective breath of relief (or maybe even regret) was released across the whole of our beloved central Florida, the 2011-12 NBA regular season finally came to an end this Thursday for our local Team in Stripes. The insanity and continual torture that made up the Magic's year sometimes bordered on the comical, but always within the realm of angst, delirium, and incredulity (Is that a word? Eh, that's a word.). Here we are now, and Squad Orlando, for all the blunt trauma it has received (and generally for the most beatings we've seen any organization take since the Bush administration), have still been given an opportunity to walk up to the chalkboard and clean its slate clean, along with 15 other clubs for a postseason rumble.
Once here, how does the saying go? Oh yea. Go Hard, or Go Home.
Next up for Blue Team? Once respected during an era called Miller Time, then treated like a paddy cake walk (yes, a combination of paddy cake and a cake walk, they were that bad) for a few years, now recently reveling in renewed relevancy (say that 3 times fast): the Indiana Pacers. Geez, these guys are pretty deep too. Like 10 guys on their roster are almost averaging double digit points per game kind of deep. They have quickness in their back court (Darren Collison and Barbosa). They have shooters (Granger), athleticism (Paul George) and length (see: most of their team, but particularly Hibbert and West). Ok, I know what you're thinking- they sound pretty damn good to me, what chances do the Magic really have? National media laughs at the notion of Orlando winning this series without Dwight, and most predict a 5 & out if not a clean sweep. What they must try to understand though, and as the great war strategist Sun Tzu has sought to teach us, "Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance". The Pacers are like any other team in the NBA with exploitable weaknesses, and they can be beaten (4 times in a 7 game series).
So what are the 3 Keys to Beating this Indy squad with this current ragtag collection of misfits we call our Magic?
1. BOMBING AWAY N' SHOOTING LIGHTS OUT FROM 3- LAND
In the past few games since Dwight's season ending surgery, we've gotten a glimpse of how the Magic will be playing without him. More up tempo, free wheeling, kick and drive, spot up and shoot situations. Gone are the days (at least for now, if ever again) of walking the ball up and angling a pass to Howard in the post, either for an interior shot, kick out, or foul (most likely a foul). This slow pace is very conducive to turtle races, but usually not for good, efficient basketball. When many analysts were predicting that the Magic's 3 game would suffer without Howard manning the middle, Orlando just found other ways to move the ball around to the man behind the arc. If the Magic have any one true strength right now, it is its SHOOTING (while its overall Passing to get to the open shot I've also found very underrated), and the roster has quite a few gunners capable of picking and popping (J.J. Redick) and pull up daggers (we're looking at You, Hedo). Jameer Nelson, the Richardsons (Q & J), Duhon, and how can we forget this year's 3 Point Competition contestant, Ryan Anderson, are all more then capable of hoisting and making their fair share. 3's are worth more then 2's in the game of basketball (and in the game of life), and it's going to have to be raining in Orlando's favor in order to offset the inevitable defensive lapses to come for the Magic, who have often looked in disarray protecting the basket without Howard patrolling the interior. The thing is, the Magic's whole Defensive scheme was built around funneling penetrators toward the All-NBA center, who served to deflect shots or deter drives. Now Magic players must truly count on one another (and as the great Sun Tzu also taught us, "We all We got") in playing their help defense and contesting shots in man-up situations.
The main point is, Orlando will have to be ready to drop 100 points a night (as they have proven they can this year) to remain competitive in this series with this athletic Pacers team. Indiana will almost certainly want to run the Magic off the 3 ball line, and Orlando will have to make a concerted effort at the beginning of games to dart into the lane for layups off cuts or penetration, as well as to create kick outs or even some early fouls on Indy's bigs. This will then open up the wings (as well as lanes) for more shot opportunities and as we all know, when the Magic want to get hot, they can erase deficits and build leads in a hurry.
2. SO YOU THINK YOU CAN REBOUND?
Dwight Howard has left a deep asteroid hole in the middle of the Orlando paint, particularly his almost 15 (ok, 14.5 rpg to be exact) caroms a game that he would collect by jumping up through the stratosphere. Since this loss though, the Magic have responded well, and have more then held their own on the boards, through collective rebounding efforts of Everyone on the court. Really, until this point, I had never seen so many people in a Magic uniform collecting rebounds in a game NOT named Dwight. They will have to continue this trend, as Indiana players are just tall in general and will try to win the battle of the boards for crucial extra points and winning possessions off missed shots (because yes, EVERY possession in the Playoffs is important).
Orlando's bigs will truly have to step up to the challenge and get out and clear the glass against Hibbert and West and everyone wearing yellow, especially those who normally aren't counted on to rebound (or play) that much, i.e. Daniel Orton, Earl Clark. As for the Magic bigs who do, they will also see their rebounding responsibilities increase, as it is imperative that Ryan Anderson does what he does best (stick his nose in and keenly grab extra possessions and buckets) and for Big Baby to play with an overall mean ex-Celtics streak.
It will be a collective effort from everyone on the team though to keep their eye on the ball and go get it though, as Hedo, Clark, and Q will need to keep Danny Granger, Tyler Hansborough, and Paul George off the offensive boards, while Jameer and the other guards stay wary and snag some boards from amongst the trees as well in order to be successful in controlling the tempo of the game.
3. (DON'T) SLOW YOUR ROLL, PLAYBOY
As previously mentioned, sans Dwight, the Magic have opened free range on their offense, and have found creative ways to swing the ball and create different looks, including their much vaunted pick and roll offense. Jameer and Hedo Turkoglu are truly two of the best in the game when it comes to using it to create opportunities, as the pick setter/roller is most often the beneficiary for spot up j's or rewarded for his hard dive through the lane with a skip pass for an easy bucket. It will be Orlando's job to keep Indiana off balance, choosing when to curl JJ off screens for his patented shot or for Nelson to take matters into his own hands on a drive. As long as Orlando keeps moving and sharing the rock, good things always happen. It is only when the ball stagnates and late shot clock jumpers are chucked (looking at You again, Hedo) that the offense tends to suffer.
In a halfcourt game with the Pacers, Orlando will not match up well at all, as Indiana has size and will choose to use it to its advantage, slowing up the pace and banging it out in the paint. Orlando's only alternative is to get out on the break often and early, and Magic backup Ish Smith may prove an integral part of keeping the pace while spelling Jameer for breathers. Hedo will also have to handle ball handling responsibilities late (esp in fighting Indy's presses), and will be counted on once again to drop Turkish daggers come Money Time. This is alot to ask of Turkoglu fresh off face surgery but one thinks this freewheeling style would play more to Hedo's strengths, and will play a large factor in controlling the tempo, and thus, series, against the Pacers.
No matter what happens, I think this will be a pretty exciting series, and feel that Orlando can really surprise a lot of people, if it can prepare a proper game plan in exploiting these three keys to winning the series and advancing. Because, as the great Sun Tzu once told us, He who is prudent and lies in wait for an enemy who is not, will be victorious.