(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Earl Clark didn't exactly have a banner 2011/12 season, his first full one with the Orlando Magic. The former lottery pick from Louisville shot just 36.7 percent from the field despite shooting exclusively from two-point territory, and he wasn't a standout rebounder either, pulling in an estimated 12.8 percent of available misses while on the floor.
But Clark did manage to make a name for himself at the defensive end, which is what coach Stan Van Gundy said during training camp he'd like to see from the lanky forward. Clark averaged 2.1 blocks per 36 minutes, or 4.5 percent of all opponent two-point attempts while on the floor. That level of defensive production rivals those of Magic teammate Dwight Howard (two blocks per 36, 4.4 percent), Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (1.8, 4.1 percent), and Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert (2.4, 5.2 percent). Each of those three players earned an All-Star berth in 2012.
And Clark's performance in the playoffs against Hibbert and his Pacers has proven that Clark has indeed grown by leaps and bounds as a defender since joining the Magic in December 2010. According to NBA.com's stats tool, the Pacers have shot just 32.9 percent from the floor in Clark's 41 minutes on the floor, including 7.7 percent (1-of-13) from three-point range. Under Clark's watch, the Pacers have struggled inside, shooting an icy 42.3 percent in the restricted area with him on the floor as compared to 51.4 percent with him on the pine.
Clark has also been a tremendous help on the glass, hauling in 7.5 rebounds per game in just 20.5 minutes. With him on the floor, Orlando has grabbed 52.1 percent of available rebounds, compared to just 42.5 percent with him sitting. The Magic rebound nealy three-quarters--73.2 percent, to be precise--of Indiana's misses when Clark plays, and just 60.4 percent when he sits. As the Pacers have tallied 46 second-chance points in the series, keeping them off the offensive glass is of the utmost importance, and Clark's helped them accomplish that goal.
Clark's defensive excellence has helped Orlando keep the score close with him on the floor, despite his lack of offensive skill. The Pacers have outscored Orlando by just a single point with Clark inside.
If the Magic can find ways to get their more offensively oriented players--like J.J. Redick, Jameer Nelson, and Jason Richardson--hot with Clark on the floor, they'll be a credible two-way threat in this series and could pull the upset. But Orlando's struggled to score in this series, meaning that even if Clark continues to carry the defensive load, it may not be enough to prevent Orlando from its second first-round playoff elimination in as many years.