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As seen on ABC’s Sunday Dime.
With the Miami Heat coming away with a much-needed victory against the Los Angeles Lakers to snap a five-game losing streak, it’s becoming clear that they’re locked in to the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference — at minimum. There’s 17 games left in the regular season and unless the Heat go on another prolonged losing streak or the Orlando Magic begin winning games left and right, it’s tough to see them falling below their in-state and divisional rival in the standings. As a point of reference, the Magic trail the Heat by three games.
Given that Basketball-Reference’s projected standings and Hollinger’s NBA Playoff odds predict that Orlando will finish with a record of 52-30, thus locking them in to the No. 4 seed, it’s time for the attention to be diverted away from Miami and onto two other teams in the East that pose as more immediate threats.
Meet the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks.
Even though the Hawks lead the Knicks by two and a half games in the standings for the time being, they are predicted to have a photo finish for the race to the No. 5 seed and the rights to play the Magic in the first round of the 2011 NBA Playoffs, each of them hovering around the 44-46 win mark. Thing is, even though Atlanta is “better” in terms of wins and losses, New York owns a better efficiency differential and beat them head-to-head on Sunday by the score of 92-79 with both teams utilizing their revamped rosters.
In the postseason, who would Orlando rather face?
To be honest, it’s a tough call. It’s true that the Magic blitzed the Hawks in the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals last season but a lot of things have changed since then. Especially from Orlando’s side, where a majority of the roster has been gutted and refitted after general manager Otis Smith pulled the trigger on two blockbuster trades on December 18. Plus, with Atlanta making the tactical decision of starting Jason Collins against Dwight Howard, that strategy has paid off. The new wrinkle in the discussion is Kirk Hinrich, one of the better defensive point guards in the league and someone that can contain Jameer Nelson, a Hawks killer. Needless to say, the Hawks won’t be an easy matchup for the Magic. And then there’s the Knicks, which boast Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. Yes, there’s no one for New York that can defend Howard and that might tip the scales in Orlando’s favor. But in a seven-game series, the combined talents of Stoudemire and Anthony are more than enough for the Knicks to pull off the upset. Oh yeah, then there’s that Chauncey Billups character. The Magic had a lot of problems slowing down Stoudemire, Billups, and Anthony in their head-to-head matchup on March 1, so that series wouldn’t be a cakewalk either.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s amazing how far Orlando has fallen when it comes to projecting their fate in the playoffs. Entering the season, the Magic were expected to finish with a top three seed in the Eastern Conference, breeze through the first round, and do battle with either the Boston Celtics or Heat after that.
Not as easy.