In a first round playoff preview between rivals from the Southeast Division, the Atlanta Hawks were able to defeat the Orlando Magic by the score of 85-82. With the victory, the Hawks win the season series 3-1 — a complete reversal of fortune from the previous season when the Magic had their way against them in the regular season and the postseason. Like Orlando’s game against the New York Knicks, this game went down to the wire. With less than a minute to go in the fourth quarter, Jameer Nelson was able to make a layup in the lane to tie things up at 82. On the ensuing possession, Atlanta ran a 1/2 pick and roll with Kirk Hinrich and Joe Johnson, an excellent play-call by head coach Larry Drew, and Johnson was able to exploit the confusion in pick and roll coverage by Nelson and Jason Richardson, waltzing his way into the paint for a floater. The shot gave the Hawks a two-point lead, but the Magic still had a chance to tie or take the lead depending on preference. Head coach Stan Van Gundy drew up a play during Orlando’s timeout for Nelson, given that he had success throughout the evening in exploiting Atlanta’s perimeter defense off the dribble. The Magic ran a 1/5 pick and roll with Nelson and Dwight Howard, with Nelson attacking the basket and putting up a floater. But Nelson missed the shot and Jason Collins retrieved the rebound for the Hawks. It’s blind luck for Orlando that Collins rebounded the basketball because he was immediately fouled and given that he’s a poor free-throw shooter, the percentages were not in his favor to make both free-throws and ice the game. Collins badly missed the first free-throw, but made the second to give Atlanta a three-point lead with 5.7 seconds left in regulation. Van Gundy called another timeout, drawing up a play for Hedo Turkoglu. Some questioned whether or not the Hawks were going to foul, given that they were up by three points with roughly five seconds left in the fourth quarter. Usually that’s the time to foul, but Atlanta chose not to. Richardson got the ball at the top of the key and almost hesitated, seemingly as if he was waiting for the Hawks to foul but they didn’t. Richardson let a few seconds go by, then passed the basketball to Turkoglu as he was coming around a screen at the three-point line. Turkoglu caught the ball, but missed the shot and the Hawks won. It was poor execution by the Magic and it’s hard to believe they couldn’t have gotten a better look at a three-pointer.
There’s a few reasons that Atlanta was able to come away with a victory, but look no further than Josh Smith. Yes, Smith was fantastic, putting up 26 points on 10-of-18 shooting from the field and making an impact on both ends of the floor.
In the past, Smith struggled when facing off against Orlando because not only did Rashard Lewis bother him defensively, by spreading the floor and spotting up at the three-point line, thus nullifying Smith’s influence on defense and dragging him away from the paint. But Lewis’ length, in conjunction with Howard’s help defense, bottled up Smith offensively. However, things have changed. With Brandon Bass starting at the power forward position, that makes it easier for Smith to provide weak-side help because Bass isn’t a threat to shoot threes. Howard found out the hard way, as he was blocked by Smith on one occasion in the third quarter which exemplified that difference in personnel. Also, with Collins starting at center, that slides Al Horford to power forward and Smith to small forward. As such, Smith has a favorable matchup against Turkoglu, given that he can overwhelm him with his athleticism. And when Ryan Anderson is in the game, even though he can provide similar attributes to Lewis on offense that gives Smith trouble, it’s no contest on defense. Smith ate Anderson alive, and there’s little that the Magic could do about it. In essence, Smith has gone from being a non-factor against Orlando and evolving into a matchup nightmare.
To be honest, Smith was the only player for the Hawks that wreaked havoc against the Magic. Not other player for Atlanta experienced tremendous success, even though Johnson stepped up in crunch-time with his go-ahead floater.
Collins deserves kudos for his work defensively against Howard. It seems silly to suggest, but Collins is one of the main reasons that the Hawks are no longer destined for failure. With Collins out there, he was able to influence Howard into getting foul trouble in the first quarter. For the remainder of the night, Howard had to deal with fouls, which became a problem for Orlando because he couldn’t play as many minutes as he usually does. Howard played nearly 33 minutes. And when Howard was on the court, he struggled on offense. Howard finished with 17 points on 4-of-13 shooting, and Collins deserves credit for that. Ditto with Zaza Pachulia, someone that provided Atlanta with another big man to throw at Howard. Also, when Atlanta proceeded to play as they normally do, with Horford at center, he was able to disrupt Howard offensively too. It was a team effort by the Hawks on defense, and it’s a big reason they were able to win.
The Magic’s lack of depth was a problem as well. Turkoglu and Nelson were stellar on the perimeter, but Richardson was nowhere to be found, as he finished with three points on 1-of-7 shooting. Usually, Orlando can overcome a quiet night from Richardson with J.J. Redick but due to his absence, they had to rely on Gilbert Arenas at the shooting guard position and that didn’t bode well. Arenas played 19 minutes and didn’t score a single point. Unfortunately for the Magic, even when they’re at full-strength, quality of depth is still an issue. Only Redick and Anderson can be relied upon as reserves. Quentin Richardson too, at times. After that, it’s like Orlando is playing Russian roulette with players like Arenas. It’s too soon to criticize general manager Otis Smith because the season isn’t over, and a lot of things can change between now and the playoffs. But the trades have put the Magic in a weakened state, especially with depth. Adding insult to injury is the distinct possibility that Orlando can lose to Atlanta in the first round.
My how things have changed.