While the Cavaliers and the Celtics take turns grinding on each other's muscles and nerves in their deadlocked second-round series, the Magic are methodically dismantling their playoff foes. Stan Van Gundy's crew won ugly against Charlotte in the first round, with Vince Carter mostly AWOL and Dwight Howard benching himself with heedless fouls. Now Orlando is winning pretty against Atlanta, making more than half its shots in the first three games while holding the Hawks to an average of 81 points.
NBA marketers may have a Kobe-LeBron Finals dancing in their heads, but the team to beat right now -- because nobody has through seven games -- is Orlando.
Maybe the lack of buzz is because the Magic haven't faced a marquee franchise in the first two rounds and have sucked all the drama out of their games through near-total domination. But for a team that is the defending Eastern Conference champions and has won 40 of its last 48 games, including 13 in a row, Orlando is still flying beneath the radar. Many observers would still regard the Magic as underdogs in a matchup against the Cavs or the Lakers. Here are three good reasons they shouldn't be.
• A trump card on defense. Howard has led the NBA in blocks and rebounds for the past two years, the obvious reasons he is the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year. But it's the stuff that can't be measured on the individual stat sheet that is perhaps more impressive. Howard has extraordinary quickness and range on his defensive coverage, both in executing his own rotations and covering for his teammates. In other words, not only is he massive and imposing in the paint, like Shaquille O'Neal in his prime, but he's also spidery and stealthy, omnipresent at both ends of the pick-and-roll or closing out on the jump shooter, like Kevin Garnett before the knee surgery.
• A rock-solid half-court offensive game plan. With the slower pace and higher intensity of the postseason, a team has to execute its offense in the half-court. The Magic spread defenses by situating Howard in the low block and surrounding him with accurate three-point shooters. Seven Orlando players shot at least 211 treys during the regular season, and their accuracy ranged from 36.7 percent to 40.5 percent. In the playoffs, four Magic are making at least 40 percent. They unselfishly set each other up -- if there were a stat kept for perimeter "hockey" assist, or the pass that led to the assist, the Magic would easily lead the league.
When opponents try to shut down the long game, the Magic dump the ball into Howard, who shot 61.2 percent during the season and is up to 64.8 percent in the playoffs. And while some of the gunners are catch-and-shoot specialists, the likes of Carter and Jameer Nelson can burn you off the dribble.
• A blend of experience and hunger. With rare exception, such as the '08 Celtics in the Big Three's first season together, NBA champions have been tempered and forged by near-misses at winning it all in the seasons immediately before their breakthrough. The experience the Magic gained by outlasting the Cavs in a thrilling conference finals last year and then succumbing to the Lakers has clearly whet their collective appetite. There are some new components at the top of the rotation -- a healthy Nelson in place of Rafer Alston or Anthony Johnson, Carter instead of Hedo Turkoglu -- but players like Rashard Lewis, Mickael Pietrus and Howard (against Atlanta anyway) are playing with the confidence and savvy of performers who have already been tested on the big stage. They have experienced just the right amount of success and failure to play with a laser focus and big-picture attitude.
Sure, there are still questions. Can Howard make his free throws and avoid foul trouble? Can Carter rise to the occasion when he's needed? Can Lewis, the "stretch" power forward, win his matchup against his slower but brawnier counterparts? Will Van Gundy's extroverted approach wear as well during times of adversity? But however those get answered, rest assured that the Magic will be a very tough out for any opponent.
There is one other danger: that Orlando's early dominance makes it complacent or otherwise unprepared for the sudden pressure and adversity that accompanies postseason defeats. Remember, only two other playoff teams have matched or eclipsed Orlando's 17.7-point margin of victory in its first seven games -- the Cavs and the Nuggets, both last season. And neither made it to the NBA Finals.
Raise your hand if you thought San Antonio would be the first team eliminated in the conference semifinals. Some observations about the Phoenix sweep ...
• The confidence game, part I.Steve Nash delivered a mortal blow to the Spurs' chances by undressing second-year guard George Hill with four layups in a span of 2:14 early in the first quarter of Game 1. Nash's aggression in looking for his own shot ambushed the Spurs, whose scouts had obviously seen the Suns' point guard average four assists in the first quarter alone during the six-game first-round series with Portland. In any case, Hill's teammates were slow to leave their men to help him contain Nash's patented left-handed drives. When Hill was mercifully benched just 5:36 into the game, Nash already had 11 points and Phoenix led 16-7.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has four rings as proof he knows how to motivate his players according to their makeup. And Popovich perhaps has never praised one of his players as blatantly and consistently as he has Hill, who became the first draftee from IUPUI when the Spurs took him 26th overall in 2008. That assiduous cultivation worked wonders on Hill's ego, enough that he became a crucial X-factor and crunch-time shooter in the Spurs' six-game series win over Dallas.
But Hill was never that player after Nash showed him up in the first six minutes of the series. After scoring nearly 20 points per game and shooting 50 percent from both the field and from three-point range in the last four games against Dallas, Hill shot 37 percent overall and 23 percent from distance while average 12 points in the four losses to Phoenix. Tony Parker replaced Hill in the starting lineup for the final two games.
• The confidence game, Part II. The "Wired" segment, in which you hear coaches talking to players in the huddle during timeouts, is almost always a snooze-inducing string of cliches and exhortations. A notable exception was listening to the implacably optimistic demeanor of Alvin Gentry throughout the Suns' first game at San Antonio. Even as the Spurs went up 16 early in the second quarter of Game 3, Gentry was calmly but firmly telling his players that it was only a matter of time before they got back into it. It was a spectacular sales job on his team's collective confidence, made even more impressive when the Suns did indeed rally and trounce San Antonio behind reserve point guard Goran Dragic, reared by Gentry the way Hill is bucked up by Popovich.
• Decisions, decisions. Popovich is one of the 10 best coaches of all time. But he had a tough series against Phoenix, beginning with his initial decision to ride with Hill instead of Parker, who has a history of success against Nash. That bit of second-guessing became easier when Nash schooled Hill and shredded the Spurs' defensive scheme en route to 17 first-quarter points and 33 overall in the Game 1 win for Phoenix. It wasn't until Game 3 that Popovich started Parker.
That was the same game in which the Spurs constantly switched on the pick-and-roll, leaving a series of mismatches that Phoenix promptly exploited. This isn't to say that the Spurs lost because of Popovich; Phoenix was clearly the better team this series and had success with the pick-and-roll whether San Antonio switched on it or not. Most surprising was the way Phoenix simply ground down the Spurs.
• With 4:10 left in the fourth quarter and his team up by two in a must-win Game 3 against the Lakers, Jazz forward Carlos Boozer stepped to the line and clanked two free throws. Had he converted both to increase the lead to four, no one knows how the rest of the game would have played out. But it's not totally unfair to note that Utah lost by one, and that Boozer damaged his team's chances with those misses. A capable and frequent mid-range shooter with a soft touch, he has been unreliable at the line this postseason, converting just 17-of-33 after making 74.2 percent this season and 72.8 percent for his career.
The greater point is that free throws remain a relatively small but vital element of the game. They count the same whether they are made or missed in the first period or the final moments of a game. In Game 3 of the Spurs-Suns series, San Antonio was up by a point with 10 minutes left. By that time, Tim Duncan (5-for-12) and Parker (0-for-4) had already missed 11 free throws. The complexion of the game changes if they nail even 75 percent of their attempts.
Free-throw shooting could play a major role if the Cavs and Magic meet in the Eastern Conference finals. Cleveland finished last and Orlando (thanks in large part to Howard's 59.2 percent accuracy) was next to last in free-throw percentage this season. In the west, Phoenix and its likely conference finals opponent, the Lakers, ranked 10th and 11th, respectively, the highest of the remaining playoff teams.
• Two tremendous performances over the weekend rekindled memories of the extraordinary way those players were treated by their employers in the recent past.
Even after Rajon Rondo averaged nearly a triple-double in the Celtics' seven-game win over the Bulls in the first round last year, the point guard found himself the subject of numerous trade rumors and less-than-flattering remarks from general manager Danny Ainge, who last June cited Rondo's stubbornness and said the then-23-year-old player needed to "grow up" in some areas.
Ainge's remarks seemed needlessly provocative back then and incredibly foolish in light of Rondo's 29-point, 18-rebound, 13-assist masterpiece on Sunday that enabled the Celtics to even their series with the Cavs at 2-2. Yes, Rondo has matured this year while breaking the venerable franchise's records for assists and steals in a season. But he was already showing signs of being a special player weeks before the trade rumors became rampant and Ainge chose to belittle his maturity. Now that Rondo is so clearly Boston's best player and the cornerstone of its future, management is fortunate that he seems to be a forgiving soul.
At the other extreme is what happened with the Jazz and Derek Fisher. Three years ago, Fisher's infant daughter had a well-publicized battle with eye cancer, best treated at medical facilities outside of Utah. Fisher requested to be traded to one of the few cities where he could play and be near his child as she received care. In a remarkably magnanimous and compassionate gesture, Larry Miller, the Jazz's late owner, instead released Fisher so he could negotiate the best possible situation for himself.
That, of course, turned out to be a return to Los Angeles, where Fisher has been a crunch-time stalwart for the past three seasons with the Lakers. On Saturday, he capped a stellar performance with the go-ahead three-pointer with 28.6 seconds left as the Lakers defeated the Jazz 111-110. A cerebral veteran, Fisher is also nearly as well-versed in the offensive sets run by Jerry Sloan as the younger players on the current Utah roster, knowledge that helps him compensate for his slower foot speed when defending the Jazz.
It is tempting to invoke the cliche that no good deed goes unpunished -- except that Fisher's daughter's cancer is in remission, and Utah's reputation as a first-class organization is solidly intact.