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The Atlanta Hawks were able to defeat the Orlando Magic by the score of 103-93 to win Game 1 in the first round of the 2011 NBA Playoffs. In one felt swoop, the Hawks were able to win a postseason game on the road and wrestle home-court advantage away from the Magic. The key for Atlanta was getting production from their starters, excluding Jason Collins, and Jamal Crawford. Five players scored in double-figures for the Hawks, including a team-high 25 points from Joe Johnson on 9-of-16 shooting from the field, and each of them were able to take over the game at different junctures. Orlando’s inability to slow down Atlanta offensively in the second and third quarters proved to be their downfall. The Hawks shot 72.7 percent in those periods and turned the ball over just three times, allowing themselves a chance to score on nearly every possession. Atlanta was able to make a number of jumpshots, many of them on open looks, and that was that. On the flipside, the Hawks’ strategy of allowing Dwight Howard to do whatever he wanted on offense worked, as they were able to contain every player on the Magic’s roster not named Howard and Jameer Nelson — another important factor. It’s the reason that Howard played the best game of his career and Orlando lost. Howard was dominant on both ends of the floor, tying a career-high with 46 points and 19 rebounds. Howard set a playoff franchise record by scoring 31 points in the first half and tied another record (with Tracy McGrady in 2003 against the Detroit Pistons) with the most points scored in a postseason game. It was a phenomenal effort by Howard but overlooked because the Magic were unable to come away with a victory. Nelson was also spectacular, starting off slow with one point in the first half but finishing with 27 points and six rebounds while setting a playoff franchise record by scoring the most points in a quarter with 20 in the third. In a lot of ways, it was a strange game for Orlando because their two best players performed to their maximums but the rest of the team faltered. It was a paradox in some ways.
Let’s immediately start with the bad for the Magic.
This series is going to be a problem for Orlando because they don’t matchup well with Atlanta. Plain and simple. For everything that Nelson and Howard provide for the Magic, they are being undermined by their teammates.
Jason Richardson was absent, contributing nothing to the cause and getting picked apart defensively by Johnson. There’s no question that Johnson has an advantage on Richardson with his size and strength. Head coach Stan Van Gundy tried a number of options in hopes of slowing down Johnson, including using J.J. Redick and Quentin Richardson defensively. Johnson was too strong and athletic for Redick. As for Richardson, even though he did a decent job of checking Johnson when he was matched up against him, two costly turnovers in the fourth quarter negatively impacted his contributions on defense.
Hedo Turkoglu was just as bad. Josh Smith is too strong and athletic — there’s a pattern here — for Turkoglu, bullying his way to the basket and doing an excellent job of not solely relying on his jumpshot. Even though Turkoglu’s engagement on defense improved in the final period, there’s no question that he will continue to struggle containing Smith all over the court.
As for Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson, they have no chance against a big man of Al Horford’s caliber. Horford abused Bass and Anderson not only in the low post but on pick and rolls, as his ability to accurately shoot mid-range jumpers killed Orlando time and again. The Magic struggled to rotate properly on Horford as he jumped out between 16-23 feet, knocking down four shots in that range. Bass and Anderson are not entirely to blame for allowing Horford to enjoy plenty of open looks from the perimeter, but they weren’t helping the cause either.
And Crawford had his way too.
If this story sounds familiar for Magic fans, it should, because this is a predicament the Cleveland Cavaliers had to deal with in the 2009 NBA Eastern Conference Finals, in which they had the best player on the floor with LeBron James but dealt with mismatches everywhere. The Hawks, right now, have three clear matchup advantages. Johnson, Smith, and Horford can do whatever they want offensively without much troubles. When Crawford is in the game at point guard for Atlanta, he scores but Nelson torches him defensively. Likewise, even though Kirk Hinrich did the best job of containing Nelson, that’s still a matchup in Orlando’s favor when Nelson plays to his capabilities, like he did in the second half.
How can the Magic counter Johnson, Smith, and Horford?
Well, the answer isn’t so simple.
Quentin Richardson is probably the player that’s capable of slowing down Johnson when looking at the wing defenders at Orlando’s disposal. Earl Clark is someone that has a chance at containing Smith or Horford. It is possible that Howard can defend Horford but if he has a weakness defensively, it’s his struggles defending a player that hangs around the perimeter. Plus, in Howard’s case, that draws him away from the paint, making it easier for players like Johnson and Smith to attack the basket. In essence, the Magic have the players to solve some of these problems on defense but there’s caveats involved. If Van Gundy trotted out a lineup with Richardson and Clark, Orlando would struggle to score even though they’d probably improve defensively. Yes, Van Gundy is in a precarious position and part of the series is going to be defined by his ability to find a lineup combination that can slow down Atlanta on offense. The regular season has proven that some of the Magic’s starters aren’t up to the task.
On the flipside, Jason Richardson and Turkoglu need to wake up. It’s true that Van Gundy needed to do a better job of involving Richardson and Turkoglu in the offense but they need to step up themselves. Turkoglu decided to continue his odd pattern of passing up open shots, either creating looks that were more difficult for him or not shooting the basketball at all. As for Richardson, he simply needs to seek out the ball more. It’s imperative that Turkoglu gets involved in way more pick and rolls with Howard, but it’s equally as important for him to come off those picks with a shoot-first mentality. Richardson, on the other hand, needs to have plays called for him where he’s running around staggered screens, that way he can have open looks on the perimeter for jumpshots.
This series is far from over and Van Gundy will make adjustments. The question is whether or not the players, outside of Nelson and Howard, will respond.
For this recap to barely mention Howard’s transcendent performance, in which players like Collins, Zaza Pachulia, Josh Powell, and Etan Thomas submitted to his will, says a lot about everything that went wrong for Orlando in Game 1.
Key sequences in the game killed the Magic. Two, in particular, stand out that were subtle plays but the type of things that aided in the Hawks’ ability of maintaining their lead. At the 10:03 mark in the fourth quarter, Crawford missed a three-pointer and Quentin Richardson got the rebound. Unfortunately for Richardson, he was careless with the basketball and threw it to Gilbert Arenas but Marvin Williams stole it and earned an easy dunk. That play gave Atlanta a 12-point lead and allowed them to keep a distance from Orlando and prevent momentum from being built. The other play was Turkoglu’s mindless turnover with 1:31 left in the game. Hinrich missed a jumper on the other end and Turkoglu got the rebound. However, as Turkoglu dribbled the ball up the court, he made a terrible entry pass instead of taking advantage of a clean look at a three-point shot and turned it over. Of course, Crawford made the Magic pay for the mistake by making a wide open three-pointer in the corner, putting the Hawks up by 11 points and ending the game. It’s doubtful that Orlando would have made a comeback down double-digits with roughly two minutes left in regulation but they shot themselves in the foot with silly turnovers.
The Magic have a chance to redeem themselves on Tuesday.