Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images
One is fun, but twice is nice.
That’s the theme surrounding the series between the Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks, as they face off in the playoffs for a second consecutive year.
Last season in the 2010 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Magic swept the Hawks by an average margin of victory of 25 points — the worst four-game sweep in league history. However, the tables turned as Atlanta was able to win the season series against Orlando, losing once in their four head-to-head meetings.
What changed? With head coach Larry Drew making the decision to start Jason Collins at center, that’s allowed the Hawks to defend Dwight Howard one-on-one while also defending the Magic’s shooters on the perimeter. Also, the trickle-down effect of starting Collins at center has allowed Atlanta to play Al Horford at the power forward position and Josh Smith at small forward, which has created mismatches in their favor, given that they’re being defended by the likes of Brandon Bass, Ryan Anderson, and Hedo Turkoglu. Unfortunately for Orlando, Horford is too strong and skilled for either Bass or Anderson, while Smith is too athletic for Turkoglu. On the flipside, Horford is more than capable of defending Bass or Anderson on the perimeter, while Smith has the luxury of being a menace on the weak-side since he isn’t being dragged to the three-point line by Turkoglu as much as he was when Rashard Lewis was matched up against him.
Yes, things are different this time around and even though the Hawks’ efficiency differential is -1.4, which isn’t good, they have the personnel that will challenge the Magic much more than they did last year. It should be an interesting series to watch unfold.
A few days ago, I was able to ask Bret LaGree of Hoopinion a few questions to preview the first round of the 2011 NBA Playoffs between the Orlando Magic and the Atlanta Hawks.
Given what occurred last season, how might the matchup between the Magic and Hawks be different this time around?
It’s really hard to lose four playoff games by 101 cumulative points. Only been done once! I don’t think either team is as good as they were last season which should make things more competitive even if the difference between the two teams is similar. This assumes it takes one really good team to create an historic margin of victory and, as teams are pulled together closer toward mediocrity they, by their very nature, become more evenly matched even as the quality of basketball declines.
There’s been a lot of chatter surrounding Jason Collins’ ability to slow down Dwight Howard one-on-one in the low post and allow Atlanta to stay at home on the perimeter against Orlando’s shooters, but can he do it in a seven-game series?
Probably not. His health is an open and fair question. Now, if any player in the league can play through a sprained ankle, it’s Jason Collins. His whole contribution, at this point, is centered around his own immobility.
I’m not much for armchair psychology providing insight into much of anything but I suspect that Dwight Howard isn’t thrilled with the chatter regarding Jason Collins’ ability to slow him down. Since Dwight Howard is very good and eliminating Jason Collins from the series mostly involves drawing fouls on him and Collins committed a foul every six minutes this season and every five minutes against the Magic, that seems a plausible strategy for success over a seven-game series for Howard.
Although the Magic are favored in the series, they’re certainly vulnerable compared to last year. What elements have to be in the Hawks’ favor for them to spring the upset?
Larry Drew has, at least on some level, accepted that the Hawks, with their penchant for taking long two-point jump shots, are never going to score consistently against the Magic and has gone all-in defensively. Jason Collins banging 20 minutes a game against Dwight Howard is important in and of itself but it’s also given Drew the confidence to keep Al Horford on the floor against Orlando.
Remember Mike Woodson’s moment of strategic brilliance in Game 1 of last year’s series? Take Al Horford out less than half-way through the first quarter and then put him back in as soon as Gortat enters the game. Except Stan Van Gundy had Dwight Howard play the first 21 minutes of the game, the Magic were up 16 when Howard got his first rest, and, even after Woodson realized what was happening, Horford still ended up playing less than 15 minutes of the first half of an eventual 43-point loss.
Josh Smith also deserves credit for his improved defense when moved out to play the 3 this season. It remains to be seen if his sprained knee will allow him to continue in that vein at this point of the season, though it’s also difficult to imagine that he could be physically able to play and unable to keep Hedo Turkoglu in front of him.
There’s a lot of matchup changes between Orlando and Atlanta compared to last season but Jameer Nelson, in particular, had a field day against Mike Bibby. How will Kirk Hinrich’s presence change things?
Mike Bibby could get beat by a step on the first step. Mike Bibby did not get through a screen. Ever. His poor defense put extreme pressure on a team that only plays a couple of quality defenders (Josh Smith and Al Horford) often and almost always has at least one other terrible perimeter defender (Joe Johnson or Jamal Crawford) on the court.
Kirk Hinrich isn’t the defender he was three or five years ago but his remaining defensive ability, combined with his superior size and quickness (compared to Bibby) allows Smith and Horford either to defend their own men or help elsewhere as needed rather than having to pay attention to where Mike Bibby is and where his man left him on every single defensive possession. It may change, but, as of yet, opponents just haven’t been as relentless in attacking Johnson or Crawford as they were Bibby. The Hawks still aren’t, despite their able frontcourt, a good defensive team but they are somewhat more difficult to break down in Bibby’s absence. Especially if Jeff Teague gets minutes as Hinrich’s backup. If the Hawks get their wish and every game of this series is played around 80 points, that’ll have some value to them.
I like to thank Bret for taking the time to answer my questions.