The Washington Generals took less of a beating than the Hawks did in the second round last postseason, when Orlando swept them right out of the playoffs. That Hawks team was one-dimensional offensively and had problems -- big problems -- defending the center and point guard positions. That Hawks team lost by an average of 25.3 points, including a 43-point blowout in Game 1.
This Hawks team (44-38) is a little different. The addition of Kirk Hinrich has stabilized the point guard position, and new coach Larry Drew has (somewhat) diversified the offense. Atlanta took three of four from Orlando (52-30) during the regular season while keeping Howard (19.3 points on 43.1 percent shooting) reasonably in check.
Dwight Howard vs. Jason Collins. The crafty Collins has been Atlanta's secret weapon against Howard this season, averaging 20 minutes per game in their four meetings. Collins is a technically sound defender -- not to mention a heck of a flopper -- who had big-game playoff experience with New Jersey. The ability of the 7-foot, 265-pound Collins to successfully defend Howard one-on-one enabled the Hawks to stay at home on Orlando's three-point shooters in the regular season, a strategy they will try to employ again in the playoffs.
Hawks: Kirk Hinrich. Hinrich has had his good nights (15 points, six assists in a win over Detroit in March) and bad (a combined 1-of-11 shooting in recent back-to-back losses to Washington and Miami ) since coming over from the Wizards at the trading deadline. But at his best, Hinrich is a proven playoff performer (15.3 points, 5.8 assists in 34 postseason games) who can provide lockdown defense at the point. That D will be crucial as Atlanta tries to keep Jameer Nelson from creating in the paint.
Magic: Gilbert Arenas. Ah, Gilbert. Time to earn your $17.7 million. Arenas has been, well, pretty bad with Orlando, averaging 8.0 points on 34.4 percent shooting. He also has a hard time keeping quicker guards in front of him, a result of his continued recovery from multiple knee surgeries. But Arenas can still get hot from the outside; he scored 25 points (6-of-11 from three-point range) in 45 minutes in a victory at Charlotte last week. Arenas doesn't have to carry the load anymore but his production would be a big boost for a Magic bench that has been particularly weak this season.
The Hawks aren't going to fold at the mere sight of Howard like they did last season. But an experienced team like Orlando isn't going to be held to fewer than 82 points, as it was in all three losses to the Hawks this season. The addition of Hinrich and the emergence of Collins gives Atlanta two weapons they lacked last season but the Magic have a few of their own, as well as a pretty big chip on their shoulders for being dismissed as an Eastern Conference contender so quickly. This series will go longer than the last one and it will get chippy between Howard and the Hawks' front line. But look for Orlando to prevail. Magic in 7.