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.
NBA marketers may have a
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.
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
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 ...
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.
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
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,
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.
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
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
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.