Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images
You can take the Magic’s Game 1 loss to the Hawks in a number of ways.
You could be enraged–the Magic’s two most important players played one of the best games of their career, and the team still wasn’t competitive. You could despair–it sure looked like the loss exposed a lack of defensive flexibility on the wings and the extent to which the Magic rely on Hedo to create in the offense. I have to confess, though, that I’m not pulling my hair out or drowning my sorrows just yet. It strikes me that Game 1 was almost so logical as to be baffling, as each team basically played to an extreme version of what we already knew about them: the Hawks shot jump shots and hit them, while the Magic have frustratingly few options when Turk doesn’t seem up to being the creator he can be.
By now, you’ve heard the story about the game. The Hawks let Dwight get his and shut everybody else down. Well, except Jameer Nelson, for a quarter. But essentially, that was the ploy, and it worked. As I’m sure you’ve heard, the Magic scored 20 non-Dwight-or-Jameer points. Why, exactly did that happen? One number jumps off the page: 18 turnovers, which on the other end led to 21 points for the ATLiens. Some of this can be pinned on Dwight, as he had eight of those, but I think the biggest offenders, within the flow of the game, were Turkoglu and Arenas, both of whom displayed a maddening propensity to passively dribble into difficult situations while also seemingly refusing to put the pedal to the metal in scoring opportunities. Turkoglu, in particular, needs to step up for the rest of the series, because his passivity simply will not stand on offense or defense. It’s not a shock that Josh Smith took advantage of him, but it is a shock how little he imposed his will on the game. After Dwight, this team relies on positional flexibility with ball-handling spots, and that means Turkoglu has to be the engine a lot of the time.
On the other end, the Hawks simply did what the Hawks do, which is take-and mostly make-a lot of jump shots. I don’t want to be dismissive, because the Hawks were getting good looks, and Josh Smith in particular displayed great shot selection and aggression throughout. However, the reason the Hawks have been a consistently mediocre team for the past several years is not that Jamal Crawford and the rest of the gang aren’t good shooters; in fact, Crawford is one of the best at shooting long two’s. The cold fact is that even the very best shooters–at the sort of shots the Hawks usually get–are not that efficient. The Hawks are not a great spacing team, and they tend to have success when the sorts of long two-point jumpers that they hit Saturday on falling. Even the guy I think of as their real stud and their most efficient player, Al Horford, did his damage from medium range. I think of that as a big win–it’s not that Horford isn’t a great shooter, it’s just that I would much, much rather him be stepping out consistently. The real damage came at the hands of Josh Smith, and he’s the guy the Magic are really going to have to figure out going forward. His numbers didn’t pop off the page, but I can live with the points that Joe Johnson and Crawford gunned in so long as Smith is not going to consistently be in threatening positions and abusing Orlando with his versatility. Without his aggressive athleticism, you have a team full of jump shooters that doesn’t seem to realize Al Horford is almost always the best option. When he’s doing work, though, he kind of serves as the pivot for the team.
All this is to say that I have a hard time getting too worked up about the result. I would rather have a win, and it is maddening to have lost a game that saw that kind of high-level production from two important players. However, I would very much expect regression to the mean from Atlanta over the course of the next few games. Here is my one concern: What if Larry Drew stumbled into the anti-Boston way of beating Orlando. You know how the story is that teams that can single-cover Dwight can destroy the spacing of the Magic’s offense? What if, after purging the roster of the sorts of players who made that spacing work so well, letting Dwight go wild has the same effect? It takes less work to slow down the aging and inconsistent Turkoglu than it does, say, Courtney Lee or Mickael Pietrus getting open looks (not that those guys didn’t also sometimes frustrate). Without the sort of motor on the wings the Magic used to have, perhaps letting Dwight just get his has the same effect that bottling him up used to–it clogs the rest of the offense. I don’t think the Magic will lose this series, and I don’t think the Hawks will look like the team we saw in Game 1, but if I’m Orlando–particularly SVG and Dwight, both of whom could be doing honest-to-God damage with a number of teams–I see a roster that no longer supports the style the team used to thrive with, and that makes me a little bit nervous.