Saturday, April 16, 2011

Playoff Series Preview: Atlanta Hawks vs. Orlando Magic

It's tempting to focus on the season series between the Hawks and the Magic because it signifies difference. Over the past two seasons, culminating in the playoff embarrassment last Spring that, somehow, only cost Mike Woodson his job, the Orlando Magic were so superior to and such a bad matchup for the Atlanta Hawks that one didn't really need to think about the relationship between the two teams. It was clearly defined.

The three Hawk victories (and the resultant +15 scoring margin) this season changed the definition of that relationship. That change got our collective attention because carried the element of surprise. I'm just not sure that it carries as much import with regard to this playoff series as we've tempted to give it.

The Orlando Magic won eight more games than the Atlanta Hawks. In terms of scoring margin, the Magic were 17 games better than the Hawks. As valuable as Jason Collins' presence and Vince Carter's absence* are to the Hawks, that's a lot of weight for matchups to carry. Matchups that weren't, during the four regular season meetings, exactly representative of the teams that will play four-to-seven games starting tonight.

Mike Bibby started three of the four games. Jameer Nelson started two of the four games. As did Chris Duhon.

*In the past, Joe Johnson couldn't stay in front of Vince Carter and Carter's combination of size and quickness limited Al Horford's effectiveness as a perimeter defender. Horford can use his size to play off point guards, keeping them in front of him but still able to challenge shots at the rim. Carter could attack that space Horford had to surrender to the quicker player and finish at the rim even when challenged by Horford. Jason Richardson doesn't pose a similar problem.

However much weight one gives it, Jason Collins defending Dwight Howard in the post is the key matchup in this series. The danger for the Hawks is that Jason Collins only provides value while defending in the post and Dwight Howard doesn't have to stay there. I expect Orlando to use whatever combination of Howard drawing fouls on Collins in the post and forcing Collins to defend the pick-and-roll to attempt to neutralize Collins.

From Atlanta's perspective, the greatest worry is not Howard playing pick-and-roll with Jameer Nelson. Kirk Hinrich can stay in front of Nelson (though, in doing so, he might sacrifice some open jumpers, shots Derrick Rose and Tony Parker made with regularity in beating Atlanta over the final month of the season) and, even though Collins likely can't keep up with Howard on the move, the Hawks would have both Al Horford and Josh Smith available to help protect the rim.

The greatest worry for the Hawks has to be Howard running pick-and-roll with Hedo Turkoglu against the defensive tandem of Collins and Smith. Even assuming full health for Smith's right knee (which I do not), expectations for him fighting through screens on the perimeter must, to be realistic, be low. If Smith forces Collins to switch on those screens, I suspect it will quickly become apparent that:
  • Though Hedo Turkoglu is not an especially good basketball player at this point, he can still break down Jason Collins off the dribble either to create a shot for himself or use Atlanta's subsequent defensive rotations to create an open three-pointer for a teammate.
  • Though Josh Smith is a good defender, he can neither defend Dwight Howard in the post nor stop him him from getting to the basket.
I have yet to mention the Atlanta offense. Here's why:

Atl v. OrlOff Eff

The success the Hawks have had against the Magic this season has little to do with their offense which has been slightly less awful in winning three of four games from the Magic this season than it was in losing seven of eight games last season. The Hawks will take the long, two-point jump shots that Orlando wants them to take and the combination* of Orlando's good transition defense and the presence of Dwight Howard will only exacerbate Atlanta's dependence on the least efficient shot in basketball.

*The more Jamal Crawford plays point guard instead of Jeff Teague will only play into Orlando's defensive system.

Even as Orlando's offense has fallen from the fourth-most efficient in the league last season to the 14th-most efficient this season, they have remained the third-most efficient defensive team in the league because of their ability to keep opponents from taking high percentage shots and forcing them to take low-percentage shots.

To reiterate, Orlando focuses on forcing opponents to take long two-point jump shots and are sufficiently good at doing it to have the league's third-best defense. The Atlanta Hawks, against all opponents this season, from the Chicago Bulls to the Cleveland Cavaliers, used a higher percentage of their field goal attempts on long two-point jumpers than Orlando's opponents.

Teamat rim
3-15 feet
16-23 feet


ORL (opp)24.86324.13928.637.722.552.4

Larry Drew is to be commended for getting the Atlanta Hawks to defend the Orlando Magic in a rational and effective manner but he has done nothing to make it easier for the Hawks to score against the Magic. Just as the former provides eminently reasonable hope that the Hawks can be competitive in this series, the latter tempers expectations for a series victory.

The Orlando Magic are the better team. The Orlando Magic have the better and more experienced head coach. The Orlando Magic have the best player in the series. The Orlando Magic know who their best player is and they play through him. None of the internal candidates for best Hawks player enter the series in perfect health, possibly, none of them enter the series even in good health.

I don't think the Atlanta Hawks will be embarrassed again but I simply don't think they're good enough for Jason Collins and Kirk Hinrich to make a sufficient difference over the course of a seven-game series, especially if Orlando does not provide a stationary and constant tactical target.

I expect low-possession, low-efficiency, competitive games. However, I don't expect the series to be quite so close.

Prediction: Magic in 5

1 comment:

CoCo said...

I didn't get into any of the specifics in my preview, but I picked the Magic because I simply can't trust this team. I am still rooting hard for them and I really hope they find a way to win. I caught the second half of Game 1. Had you told me Dwight would score 46 and 19 and the Magic would lose, I probably would have died laughing.