Eastern Conference semifinal preview -- Magic vs. Hawks
The Magic and the Hawks come together in the second round from opposite directions. Orlando received subpar performances from its two best players, Dwight Howard and Vince Carter, and still managed to sweep the Bobcats. Atlanta flexed its vastly superior talent and athleticism to toy with the Bucks for two games, but then heedlessly resurrected old doubts about its maturity and mental toughness by being outscrapped in three consecutive losses before finally finishing off Andrew Bogut-less Milwaukee in seven games.
Those circumstances make this a "trap" series for Orlando, which had to feel confident even before Atlanta's first-round pratfalls, having beaten the Hawks three out of four in the regular season while holding them to fewer points per game (82.3) than any of their other opponents except the league-worst Nets. Now, after a week off, the Magic confront a still-undeniably talented Hawks team that flirted with disaster and should be focused on redemption.
Dwight Howard vs. Atlanta's Frontcourt. Howard owned the paint at both ends of the court against the Hawks this season, averaging 21 points (on 61.2 percent shooting), 16.8 rebounds and 3.5 blocks. That really hamstrung the Hawks, who rely on their jumping-jack frontcourt of Josh Smith, Al Horford and Marvin Williams for highlight-reel swats and slams. Atlanta ranked fifth with 44.6 points in the paint per game, but managed only 32.5 against the Magic -- 10 fewer than Orlando averaged.
The crucial cog here is Smith, the most skillful and volatile member of Atlanta's front line. Charlotte's Gerald Wallace proved in the first round that a quick leaper could corral rebounds and draw a few fouls crashing in from the baseline against Orlando, and Smith, who will nominally be guarded by the defensively deficient Rashard Lewis, should aggressively follow suit. Horford, who at times had trouble establishing post position against Milwaukee's Kurt Thomas, also has to step up his game. If the Hawks are to make this a competitive series, their big men have to get out and score in transition before Howard can get back.
The other key matchup will be between shooting guards Carter and Joe Johnson. Carter isn't accustomed to being blanketed by a larger and quicker foe, but Johnson is an inch taller (6-8), four and a half years younger (28) and more productive. He was a significant reason why Carter shot only 39 percent against the Hawks this season. After his spotty performance in the first round, Carter needs a bounce-back series against Johnson and the Hawks.
Magic: Mickael Pietrus. There is an inherent joy in Pietrus' postseason play. He is bolder with his shot selection, moves around the court as if there are springs on the balls of his feet, and often draws his opponent's most prolific outside scorer, all without the customary grimace-and-groan attitude of other defensive specialists. That infectious energy and decisive, deadly outside shooting boosted the Magic over Cleveland in last year's conference finals and was again apparent against the Bobcats in this year's opening series. If Carter struggles both getting his shot off and guarding Johnson, Pietrus should be coach Stan Van Gundy's first option off the bench.
Hawks: Zaza Pachulia. The Hawks can't afford to get Smith or Horford in foul trouble, but do need stints where a big man is banging, jousting and otherwise bugging Howard enough to bait him into the type of foolish fouls away from the action that he committed against Charlotte. Pachulia is the best candidate for that role, and likewise is the first sub into the fray if Horford and/or Smith get whistled too often. He is a hard-nosed mucker who stands 6-11, and if he can put together a couple of good stints off the bench, it will improve the Hawks' chances.
Logic points to an Orlando rout. At point guard, Jameer Nelson is playing like vintage Mike Bibby, circa 2004 or so, while the Hawks are stuck with the slower, less consistent 2010 Bibby. Atlanta may have the Sixth Man Award winner in combo guard Jamal Crawford, but the Magic possess a much deeper and more versatile bench overall. The first few times you watch Orlando, you wonder why it chooses to live and die with so many three-pointers, taken regardless of the shot clock and how many teammates are beneath the hoop. But after a while, you see that it isn't really that risky: The Magic finished second (behind the Suns) in effective field-goal percentage (which factors in the added value of three-pointers) because their seven most-frequent long-range shooters convert between 36.7 (Carter's seventh-best accuracy) and 40.5 percent (by team leader J.J. Redick) of their threes. Van Gundy will find the two or three who are hot that game, and if defenses flood the perimeter, Howard gets single coverage at the rim.
The Magic, NBA finalists last season, are hungry and dedicated to taking the final step and earning a ring. The Hawks have to hope that Orlando's competitive edge has been dulled by its first-round sweep, Atlanta's lackluster showing against Milwaukee and the Magic's looking ahead to a titanic series with Cleveland. They also need monster games, if not entire series, from Smith and Johnson, and more frustration between Howard and the refs over borderline calls that put him on the sidelines. The Hawks should snatch at least one game where they convert Orlando turnovers into transition points and get balanced scoring from the perimeter and the paint. Maybe even two. Magic in five.