The first two posts on this site previewing the Orlando Magic's forthcoming playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks addressed how Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson might perform at the offensive end. Until now, I hadn't tackled the other side of that issue, which is to say I've spilled no digital ink on the Hawks' offense versus Orlando's defense. An oversight, sure, but an understandable one, because the Hawks' offense is nothing special.
Only once in the Hawks' four games against the Magic this season did the team post an offensive efficiency mark greater than its season average of 106.1, which ranks 20th in the league and 1.1 points below the NBA average. In the three other games, Atlanta scored 100.7, 94.4, and 99.0 points per 100 possessions, respectively.
The reason Orlando isn't a cinch to win this series has nothing to do with Atlanta's mediocre-at-best offense and everything to do with the matchup problems the Hawks present the Magic at the other end. If you believe Atlanta will prevail in this playoff series, you're suggesting one of two things:
The Hawks' offense will suddenly solve all the problems the Magic's defense, which ranks third in the league, presents, or...
The Hawks have the personnel, skill, and coaching to beat the Magic four times in seven defensive-oriented contests.
You'll understand, I hope, my skepticism regarding the Hawks' ability to prevail in a low-scoring series against a Dwight Howard-anchored, Stan Van Gundy-designed defense. Their season-long offensive mediocrity came with Jason Collins playing a smaller role than he will in this series, where he'll have the unenviable task of defending Howard. Marvin Williams shifts to a sixth-man role to accommodate Collins, whose move into the starting lineup slides Josh Smith down to small forward and Al Horford down to power forward. Williams averages 13 points per 36 minutes to Collins' 5.8. Even acknowledging the possibility that Smith and Horford will produce more at their new positions, they can't offset Collins' lack of skill.
So: can the Hawks play four-on-five for long stretches at a time and still topple the Magic four times out of seven? That all depends on Joe Johnson, their leading scorer and the NBA's top earner in the 2010 free-agent bonanza. On a maximum salary, Johnson posted his lowest per-game scoring average (18.2) in six seasons. And while it's true that coach Larry Drew reduced Johnson's minutes this year, the swingman's per-minute scoring dipped to its lowest level in five seasons. Johnson's efficiency took a hit as well; his 51.7 percent True Shooting mark is his worst in seven years.
There's no way around it: Johnson simply isn't as effective as he used to be, mostly because his jumper has eluded him. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Johnson posted an effective field goal percentage of 48.6 on jumpers last season. This year, it fell to 40.7 percent.
In sum, a jump-shooting top scorer whose jumper has eluded him will be called upon to generate offense against a top defense that thrives, in part, because it forces its opponents to take jumpers. That does not sound like a winning proposition for Atlanta, which raises the question of who will pick up his slack.
Smith might be an obvious answer. He's the team's second-leading scorer (16.5 per game) and boosted his average to 17.5 points per game against Orlando in the regular season. His athleticism and handle make him a difficult matchup for Hedo Turkoglu, his opposite number. If he shifts back to power forward when Collins sits, the Magic's answers (Brandon Bass, Ryan Anderson) aren't much better.
But--and you had to know there was a "but" coming--Smith's success this season against Orlando is predicated on his jumper. According to Hoopdata, his effective field goal percentage on jump-shots from 15 feet and beyond (including threes) against Orlando is 61.3 percent on 31 attempts. Inside 15 feet, where a player with his athletic gifts and shaky jumper belongs, if we're honest, he shot 36.4 percent on 33 tries.
Orlando will be happy to let Smith take nearly half his shots from the perimeter, and I do mean "let." When Smith attempts a jumper, he does opposing defenses a favor, and I expect the Magic to encourage him to fire away. He won't continue to enjoy such success on jumpers.
A sad irony of Hawks basketball is that Horford, the team's best player on both ends, is an afterthought on offense. The fourth-year pro can score with his back to the basket and has a nose for offensive rebounds. Moreover, his feathery jumper makes him an ideal pick-and-pop candidate. Yet Horford's usage rate of 19.7 percent ranks fourth on the team among rotation players, behind Johnson, Smith, and Jamal Crawford. If Atlanta took shots away from that chucking trio and gave them to its co-captain, its offense would improve drastically. Because it doesn't recognize his gifts, Orlando is off the hook, to a degree.
What I'm getting at is the Hawks lack credible scoring threats against Orlando. Williams, an average player anyway, will lose minutes to Collins, an offensive zero; Johnson and Smith are too jumper-heavy; nobody expects Crawford to shoot consistently well; Horford doesn't get enough touches. There's nothing in the players' track records to suggest the Magic have anything to worry about there.
The counter to these arguments is, naturally, that the Hawks beat the Magic thrice in four tries this season without having a good offense. I understand that. I'm inclined to believe Nelson in playoff mode, plus Howard dominating whenever Collins sits, will be enough to right the Magic's offense, which played miserably against the Hawks. The point is there aren't any similar reasons for optimism on Atlanta's side.
This series will come down to the Magic's execution against the Hawks' defense in the half-court. If Orlando plays to its ability on that end, this series will end quickly, and in the Magic's favor.