Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
In a crucial Game 3, which can decide a series (the winner goes on to win the series 82.2 percent of the time), the Atlanta Hawks were able to defeat the Orlando Magic by the score of 88-84 to take a 2-1 series lead in the first round of the 2011 NBA Playoffs. The game, and possibly the series, came down to two possessions for the Magic and Hawks that has defined their matchup since the start of the season. With 46.6 seconds left in regulation, Orlando was down a point and needed a basket to take the lead. The play that head coach Stan Van Gundy chose to run was a 3/5 pick and roll with Hedo Turkoglu and Dwight Howard at the top of the key — same play that sealed their Game 2 victory. This time, Atlanta defended it well. Turkoglu penetrated into the lane but didn’t have a clear look at the rim or an angle to pass it to Howard, so he passed it to Brandon Bass but he wasn’t open by any means. So Bass gave the basketball back to Turkoglu. With Al Horford defending him, Turkoglu was in the corner and after a few seconds trying to create space to put up a shot, he took a three-pointer that was contested and missed. Given that there was still time for the Magic to get a better look, it’s ironic that Turkoglu decided to take the difficult route in that scenario. Since returning to Orlando, there have been too many times in which Turkoglu passes up an easy shot in favor of a more difficult one and the same thing happened in that late-game sequence. Well, the Hawks retrieved the rebound and all the Magic needed to do was to get a stop on the ensuing possession for another crack at winning the game. However, with the ball in his hands and the shot clock winding down, Jamal Crawford was matched up against Jameer Nelson. Crawford tried to break Nelson down off the dribble as he always tries to do against his defenders, but no dice. As such, Crawford was forced to put up a contested shot like Turkoglu. However, the difference is that Crawford has a height advantage on Nelson. Even though Nelson closes out on the shot and puts his hands up, Crawford is able to elevate higher. And with luck on Atlanta’s side for most of the series, Crawford banks in the three-pointer that pushes the lead to four points with 5.7 seconds left and ends the game.
This isn’t to imply that the Hawks are lucky to be leading the series against the Magic, but there’s no question that gratuitous bounces and plays have been able to aid them in their quest to advance to the next round.
For example, there was a sequence in the fourth quarter that encapsulated this phenomenon.
After trailing for most of the game and being down by as many as 14 points, Orlando was able to retake the lead at 69-68. Atlanta was settling for jumpshots and the home crowd was getting antsy. The Magic were able to force the Hawks to settle for another jumper and as they begin to execute a play on offense, Crawford was able to poke the ball from behind as Nelson was dribbling and force a steal. Even though Crawford, after being fouled on the fastbreak, missed one of two free throws, it halted Orlando’s momentum momentarily.
Not to be deterred, the Magic were able to respond with a layup from J.J. Redick to go up two points. On the ensuing possession, Orlando played great defense once again. Crawford missed a jumpshot but the basketball caromed off the rim into the hands of an Atlanta player. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Hawks took advantage and Crawford was able to create contact with Ryan Anderson on a three-point attempt (which he made) for a foul and a four-point play (which he converted). Instead of the Magic looking to extend their two-point lead, they trailed by two points. Granted, Orlando was able to come back and retake the lead at 82-81, but its plays like the ones made by Crawford in the period that provide evidence to Atlanta’s good fortune.
But the game-changer, and perhaps the series-changer, came with 2:22 left in the fourth quarter.
Howard was in a 3-out/2-in offensive set and being defended by Zaza Pachulia. Turkoglu made the entry pass to Howard. From there, Howard faced up on Pachulia and attacked the basket, but was fouled. Howard threw an elbow once the foul was made, which got Pachulia hyped up. Jason Richardson took exception to Pachulia’s antics and stepped up to him in defense of Howard after the foul. As that occurred, Pachulia started talking and staring down Richardson. Pachulia headbutted Richardson three times. In response, Richardson threw his left hand in Pachulia’s face which created a scuffle. Howard was forced to restrain Richardson as he tried to retaliate, while players from both teams tried to settle everything down and not allow things to escalate further.
Richardson and Pachulia were ejected, while Howard was assessed a technical foul.
The real damage, though, for the Magic is that Richardson is suspended for Game 4. Even though Pachulia is also suspended, this is a net gain for the Hawks. Richardson is far more valuable to his team compared to Pachulia. There are those that say losing Richardson won’t be as big of a loss for Orlando, given that he was struggling to defend Joe Johnson the entire night and wasn’t making much of an impact offensively.
That’s not the point.
Richardson’s absence puts pressure on Redick and Quentin Richardson to defend Johnson and produce on offense. It also adds more responsibility to players like Nelson and Turkoglu to pick up the slack offensively.
Also, it forces Van Gundy to play Gilbert Arenas, something he didn’t do in Game 3.
Jason Richardson’s suspension, while it may not seem like a big deal to some, creates a negative parasitic effect for the Magic.
The timing couldn’t be worse, given that a possible loss in Game 4 would create a scenario in which Orlando would have to win three of the next four games to continue their season.
That’s asking a lot from the Magic.