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Getting past Atlanta will be a relief for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s flat out unsettling to have to play a team that has beaten you three times in the regular season. Second, no matter how you spin it this is probably the least exciting matchup in the East, and in that regard I’m already looking toward the second round.
There is a sense of confidence that comes out of that argument. It’s the confidence that Magic fans have, that their team belongs in the upper echelon. Bring on Chicago! We’ve got no time for riff-raff in the first round. Or the last 20 games of the regular season, for that matter.
You get that vibe from Orlando fans and players alike, and hopefully it doesn’t doom a potentially strong playoff team.
I say potentially for a couple of reasons. As we’ve seen all season, the Magic pick and choose when they are going to show up, and sometimes struggle against the Atlanta’s of the league. Granted, anyone watching closely can find a decent excuse for each of the three losses against the Hawks. Jameer was out for the first loss, Redick was out for the third, and of course the second loss came right after all the trading. For the record, I don’t think Redick’s absence led to a midseason loss, but I’m willing to concede that the 1-3 season record is a bit conditional.
The bigger problem for me going into this series is the total lack of national interest. Even on Saturday, there are two far more compelling games earlier in the day. All eyes will be on Chicago, as all the non-NBA fanatics will get their first or second glimpse at a team they just realized is the number one seed. Similarly, it’s not as if Miami will somehow become any less scrutinized and anticipated than they’ve been all year long. The more I think about it, Saturday afternoon ought to be a fairly riveting basketball-watching afternoon.
Then you get to the Magic game. The only player on either side that anyone (as far as the populous is concerned) cares about is Dwight Howard. The Hawks, who in my opinion are one of the most unwatchable teams in the postseason, will do what they can to stop Dwight in the post. Joe Johnson will hit some threes, Josh Smith will look lazy but still get his numbers, and Jamal Crawford will do his thing. Yeah, boring.
It would be presumptuous to think the players share the sentiment. It’s the playoffs after all. But an argument exists that the slow paced, low-scoring games between Atlanta and Orlando (such as the ones we’ve seen so far this season) might be boring for the players too. Add to that the fact that Orlando vs. Atlanta highlights probably won’t run until the 56th minute of SportsCenter, and you might have a recipe for some lethargic, uninspired play.
Don’t get me wrong—these guys are professionals, and they will come out to play. I simply think Atlanta becomes a team that can beat you in the playoffs when not many people care about your series, you can’t get out and run, and you’re not scoring a ton of points.
Orlando has scored more than 90 points only once in their four games against the Hawks, and it was the game that they won. In the other games they were limited to 87, 81, and 80 points respectively.
I’ll buy the other variety of confidence seen in my opening statement — that the Magic have good reason to be looking past the Hawks and on to the “real games.” I think the Magic do belong in those top tier matchups we’ll see in the ensuing rounds. Orlando players have proven that under the big lights they tend to show up. Dwight is a big game player, Turkoglu has hit some clutch shots and taken over high profile games (see 2009), and Jameer Nelson certainly can make a case for being a big time player in big time spots.
For Magic fans, I think the confidence comes from a realization that this squad surrounding Dwight tends to play better under the spotlight and against better teams. I showed a month ago how, regardless of how the team shot, Dwight has been dominant against the top eight teams in the league, which has led to some of his frustrations. I would also argue the Magic are a team built for a long series, and mature and disciplined in the way they grind it out seven games at a time.
They are also a team who won’t fold in a rivalry game built on hatred like they might see against Miami — if the chips fall into place. They are good at emerging and exploding in timely spots, wearing you down, and getting under your skin when they hit shots and you say, “how did you hit that? I mean I know you can hit that but why did you choose this spot to prove it?”
These are all things that Magic fans (and players) know. That is why the feeling right now is: “let’s just get through Atlanta, then we can hit our stride in the postseason.”