In danger of squandering homecourt advantage after a 43-point blowout win in their series opener, the Orlando Magic buckled down on defense in the second half to take a commanding 2-0 series lead over the Atlanta Hawks, winning by a 112-98 final. The Hawks scored just 41 points in the second half and committed 8 turnovers, while the Magic got hot from beyond the arc--they connected on 6 of their 13 three-pointers--at the other end to pull away. Dwight Howard once again led the way for the victors, tallying game-highs with 29 points (on 8-of-9 shooting) and 17 rebounds. But he had help, as three of his mates in the starting lineup also cracked the 20-point threshold. Vince Carter scored 24, while Jameer Nelson and Rashard Lewis scored 20 apiece. The Hawks wasted a tremendous effort from center Al Horford, who poured in 24 points and 10 rebounds; a solid first three quarters from super sub Jamal Crawford, who finished with 23 points but missed 5 of his 6 shots in the fourth quarter; and an easily overlooked strong night from utility small forward Marvin Williams, who paced the team with 11 rebounds and numerous hustle plays. The series shifts to Philips Arena for Game 3 this Saturday.
|Green denotes a stat better than the team's regular-season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's regular-season average.
Though Howard scored more points and drew more attention, Carter is the player who really put Orlando over the top tonight. After a first half in which he deferred, Carter asserted himself in the second, scoring 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting and making arguably the game's defining play. Early in the fourth quarter, Williams scooped up his third offensive rebound of the night and went back up to score, but Carter spiked his offering from behind. He made the outlet pass, and just seconds later, stepped into a trailing, delayed transition three-pointer from the right wing that gave the Magic a 6-point lead and knocked the roof off Amway Arena. And he shredded the Hawks in the halfcourt running the high pick-and-roll with Howard: as ESPN analyst Hubie Brown so beatifully illustrated, the Hawks kept sending Carter's defender over the screen in order to take away the three-point shot, so Carter just continued driving to the bucket, which forced Horford to decide whether to step over to cover him or to stick with the rolling Howard. It's how Carter got free for two huge dunks and several more lay-ins. He was squarely in attack mode tonight, or at least for the final 24 minutes.
But we cannot overlook how Nelson carried the team in the third quarter, scoring 13 points and keeping the crowd engaged. He banked in a trey from 40 feet out to end the quarter, which gave the Magic a one-point lead and answered a more conventional three-pointer that Crawford drilled over him on the Hawks' previous possession.
Lewis? He looked for his shot more aggressively tonight than he has in a while, and put the ball on the floor more willingly than we're used to seeing. No settling tonight. Yes, 8 of his 13 shots came from three-point range, but he did take advantage of his opportunities when chased off the line. Highlights include a banked-in jumper off the bounce, as well as his patented left baseline fadeaway over his right shoulder coming out of a post-up, as he exploited Hawks point guard Mike Bibby, who caught him on a switch.
All told, the Magic's four All-Stars scored 93 points on 70.8% True Shooting.
One gets the sense that Orlando dodged a major bullet here. Though the Hawks didn't shoot well--just 45.3% effective field goal shooting, which is worse than the 45.8% mark the New Jersey Nets posted this season--they still managed more than 1.2 points per possession thanks to the frequency with which they got to the foul line. Matt Barnes did one helluva job covering Joe Johnson, but did get caught reaching with Johnson in the act a few times. He connected on all 7 of his free throws. Some silly perimeter fouls put the Hawks in the bonus fairly early in the second period as well. For the game, Josh Smith, Horford, and Crawford each went 6-of-6, and in sum, Atlanta shot a remarkable 30-of-31 from the line.
It's indicative of a different strategy Atlanta coach Mike Woodson employed. The Hawks never really looked to get out in transition, and instead walked the ball up to set up a halfcourt offense, which explains the absurdly slow pace of 81 possessions. But unlike Game 1, the possessions rarely devolved into one-on-one exhibitions. No, the Hawks moved the ball from side to side, inside to outside, and it became easy to see how they finished second in offensive efficiency this season. Horford was particularly monstrous, and showed the sort of versatility which I believe will make him one of the league's best big men within another year or two. With Howard in the game, he stepped out to shoot mid-range jumpers with reasonable effectiveness. When Howard checked out due to foul trouble, he went inside against Marcin Gortat, fooling him with a series of hesitation moves before floating in righty hooks with a soft touch. He shifted to power forward for a spell in the second quarter and beat Ryan Anderson off the dribble with a rocker-step to his right, a crossover to his left, and a powerful one-handed slam over Gortat's help D.
Woodson doesn't have the best reputation, but whatever he told his team, it worked. His guys executed his offense effectively, and their coming up short in the second half has more to do with the Magic's D than anything else. The difference in the second half, I thought, was how Smith unravelled, and took the Hawks with him. Three turnovers in the third quarter, and Brown showed on replay how Smith subsequently sulked and played at half speed on Atlanta's next few possessions. Smith's a true difference-maker, in addition to arguably being the Hawks' most talented overall player. When he's engaged, they're dangerous. But when he loses his focus? Starts throwing lazy passes, jawing with refs, jogging up the floor? Hugely detrimental.
Orlando's offense wasn't the issue tonight, except for in the second quarter, when the reserves struggled to get anything going at that end. But it's become clear that Atlanta can't stop Nelson from getting where he wants to on the floor, and still hasn't quite figured out that Howard is going to dribble to the middle, and then spin baseline for a dunk or layup whenever he posts up on the left block. Orlando should be able to score at a league-average rate until Woodson finds a scheme that can either lock Nelson down or deny Howard position.
Whatever that solution is, it'll involve Crawford taking even more minutes from Bibby. He's more than doubled Bibby's minutes already, and I'm beginning to think the Hawks' best chance is to restrict the offensively- and defensively-limited Bibby to cameos at the beginning of each half. It's not like Crawford's a defensive ace or anything, but he can do more things on offense, and has more size and quickness with which to bother Nelson. Now, the problem with Crawford is that he's just as likely to shoot the Hawks out of a game as he is to shoot them into one, whereas Bibby's essentially a safety valve on offense and isn't going to waste many possessions. Again, until the Hawks ratchet up their D, they're going to have to try outgunning the Magic, which means Woodson has to play Crawford even more than he has.