Denton: New Faces, New Schemes in Magic-Hawks Series

By John Denton
April 14, 2011


ORLANDO – When last Orlando and Atlanta met three weeks ago, the Magic limped into Atlanta with just seven fully healthy players. And when the two teams played on Dec. 18, the Magic had four new players who had yet to even go through a single practice together. And in the first two meetings – one a Magic victory, the other a Hawks’ win – Orlando point guard Jameer Nelson was absent because of an illness and an injury.

But regardless of the reasons, Atlanta beat Orlando in three of the four meetings during the regular season. And the one constant was the Magic’s surprising struggles offensively against the Hawks. It was mostly surprising because the Magic gutted the Hawks by a playoff-record 101 points with wins by margins of 43, 14, 30 and 14 points in a playoff sweep last spring.

For a Magic team that had little-to-no problem scoring on the Hawks last season in the playoffs, this season’s numbers were shocking even considering the extenuating circumstances.

In four games against the Hawks, Orlando made just 38.9 percent of its shots (120 of 308) and only 22.6 percent of its 3-pointers (19 of 84) while averaging a meager 82.5 points per game. Those numbers have had a way of grabbing the Magic’s attention as they prepare to face the Hawks Saturday at 7 p.m. of Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs.

``The pace of the game has been slower and the scores of the games have been way down. I think we’re averaging like 82 points a game against them, and that’s just not us,’’ Nelson said. ``We want to be in the high 90s or low 100s if we can. If we could score 200 against them that would be good, too.’’

That will likely be difficult against a fifth-seeded Atlanta team that went to a bigger starting lineup this season in large part because of the beatdown that Dwight Howard and the Magic put on it last spring. The Hawks added defensive ace Jason Collins at center, allowing them to move Al Horford and Josh Smith back to their natural positions at power forward and small forward.

That frontline has been one of the few in the NBA that has had success at limiting Howard, Orlando’s superstar center and MVP candidate. Second in the NBA this season in field goal percentage at 59.3 percent, Howard has made just 43.1 percent against the Hawks in four games. He 27 points against the Hawks in the first meeting in November, but over the course of the final three games he made less than half of his field goals each time. And much has been made of Collins baiting Howard into early foul trouble and holding him to four of 13 shooting three weeks ago.

``Defensively, they are a lot smarter than they were,’’ said Howard, who averaged 19.2 points, 14.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in the four games against his hometown team this season. ``They have a lot of guys who have gotten a lot better. Obviously their chemistry is there now because they have been together for a long time. It’s going to be a good series and we’re looking forward to it.’’

A Magic team that has been locked into the fourth seed for a couple of weeks has been looking forward to the start of the playoffs and a rematch against the Hawks for some time. Inconsistent much of the season following the blockbuster trades, suspensions, injuries and illnesses, the Magic started playing some of its best basketball down the stretch with four wins in the last five regular-season games.

Now, the Magic will be trying to make another deep run in the playoffs with what amounts to be an entirely new group. Hedo Turkoglu will be playing in the postseason for the first time since he was on the 2009 Magic team that reached the NBA Finals. Jason Richardson reached the Western Conference Finals last season as a member of the Phoenix Suns. And Gilbert Arenas has been a part of just one playoff series victory in his career. Now, that group joins Howard and Nelson – franchise fixtures the past seven seasons – in this attempt to win together in Orlando for the first time.

``It’s always a challenge to come together in the playoffs when you have a new group. Basically it’s unchartered waters for us as a group in the playoffs,’’ Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said.

``But there’s no question we’re all in it, certainly here, and that’s to win a title,’’ Van Gundy continued. ``We’re at a point in our organization with what we’ve done the last four years that the only thing that will satisfy us is that (championship). Now, I don’t think if we don’t win it all that it negates everything and it’s then a total failure because only one team is going to win it all. But the only meaningful thing for us will be to win it all.’’

To win against Atlanta, the Magic will have to find ways to score more consistently. Howard knows that Collins will try and frustrate him with flops and hacks in the low post, and he is one of the few players the Magic’s muscular center can manhandle down low. Both Richardsons – Jason and Quentin – will get shots at slowing down Joe Johnson, while Turkoglu will have to deal with the shot-blocking skills of Josh Smith. And by trading Mike Bibby for Kirk Hinrich, the Hawks vastly upgraded their pick-and-roll defense in an attempt to slow down Nelson.

Van Gundy and the Magic coaching staff spent most of Thursday showing the team weaknesses in the Atlanta defense that they must take advantage of in the coming series. Van Gundy wants more movement and aggression to take advantage of an Atlanta defense that prefers to switch pick-and-roll plays.

``The main thing with us is that we have to play the game with a lot more energy offensively,’’ Van Gundy said. ``Our guys can see at times when we have done that that we’ve had some offensive success. But it’s been few and far between because we’ve done a lot of standing around. They are very long and their size has bothered us and Collins has had success down low. There are a lot of factors, but the big thing for us is to just play the game with more energy and stay on the move.’’

The Magic were none too happy back in mid-December when the Hawks celebrated wildly after beating an Orlando team that had just traded for four new players two days earlier. Turkoglu, who first game back in a Magic uniform was against Atlanta, admitted that the process of trying to incorporate four new players in the middle of the season was a struggle for the Magic. But he feels that the best is about to be on display in the playoffs for the Magic.

``In the playoffs, there are no excuses and we really don’t care about what happened in the regular season or even want to think about that,’’ Turkolgu said. ``The playoffs are the best stage that you can get to play on as a player. I was able to be in that (playoff) situation a few years in Orlando, and those playoff times were the best of my career in the NBA. I’m really hyped about it now, and so is our team.’’

John Denton writes for OrlandoMagic.com. E-mail John at jd41898@aol.com. Submit a question to John for his mailbag segment at AskJD@orlandomagic.com.