Denton: All About Getting Stops

By John Denton
April 17, 2011

ORLANDO – For all of the consternation about the Orlando Magic’s overreliance on Dwight Howard disrupting their offense and their inability to shake loose for 3-pointers against an Atlanta Hawks’ team determined to take them away, it was the Magic’s failure to get stops defensively that ultimately led to their Game 1 downfall.

How helpless were the Magic defensively at even slowing down the Hawks in Saturday’s 103-93 loss at the Amway Center? Howard scored a franchise playoff record 31 points in the first half and still the Magic were down by nine points. And even after Jameer Nelson set another franchise mark with 20 third-quarter points, Orlando looked up at the massive scoreboard and saw itself down by 14 points heading into the fourth.

And each Magic charge at cutting into the deficit – they got within four points early in the third quarter and as close as eight points in the fourth period – was turned away by Atlanta’s clutch shooting time and again. Somehow a fifth-seeded Atlanta team that limped into the playoffs having lost 21 of 31 games and six straight before Saturday torched the Magic for 74 percent shooting in the second and third periods, 58 percent through three quarters and 51 percent for the game.

For a Magic team that finished the regular season ranked fourth in the NBA in points allowed and field goal percentage allowed, the inability to get stops was particularly crushing. Not even a career-high-tying 46 points from Howard or 27 more from Nelson could help the Magic dig out of their defensive woes.

``They made a lot of tough shots. That happens, but when a team shoots like (58) percent through three quarters, that’s pretty tough to take,’’ said Howard, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year and the heavy favorite to win an unprecedented third straight award. ``But it’s just one game and we know what we have to do to get better. The last game is over with.’’

A Magic team that swept the Hawks by a historic margin (a combined 101 points) just last spring finds itself shockingly in a 0-1 hole. It’s similar to the 2009 playoffs when the Magic lost their first game of the playoffs to the Philadelphia 76ers, but rallied to win that series. They ultimately made it all the way to the NBA Finals that year, digging out of deficits against the Sixers and the Celtics in the playoffs.

``We can play better – that’s pretty much the lessons we learned (from 2009),’’ Magic President of Basketball Operations/GM Otis Smith said. ``We’re a better basketball team than we showed and we can play a lot better basketball. The parallels (between 2009 and 2011) is that we’ve done it before and we can do it again because it’s still the best-of-seven. Unless they’ve changed the rules, the series is not over after one game so we’ll keep going.’’

Atlanta getting 25 points from Joe Johnson, 23 from Jamal Crawford and double digits from three other players allowed them to eclipse Howard’s monster night offensively. The Magic’s superstar center made 16 of 23 shots and 14 of 22 free throws, while also grabbing 19 rebounds (six on the offensive end). According to Elias Sports Bureau, Howard became the first player since Wilt Chamberlain to get at least 46 points and 19 rebounds in a playoff game and lose.

``I was just mad because I hate losing … especially to the Hawks,’’ said Howard, an Atlanta native whose childhood friends, Josh Smith and Josh Powell, play for the Hawks.

What concerned the Magic most coming out of Saturday’s game was their inability to slow down Atlanta’s perimeter players. Johnson (nine of 16), Crawford (seven of 14), Smith (six of 12) and Kirk Hinrich (six of 10) all made at least 50 percent of their shots, while power forward Al Horford (seven of 14) made the Magic pay with his mid-range shots.

The Magic’s mantra defensively for years has been to keep teams out of the paint, and they did that for the most part against the Hawks, giving up just eight layups. But it’s the ability to bother Atlanta’s shooters on clear-out, one-on-one plays that is critical to changing the outcome in Tuesday’s Game 2.

``We have to be a lot better defensively, no matter what we do offensively. If we have to score 105 or 106 points every night to win then we’re going to be in trouble,’’ Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. ``The Hawks have played us very well all year and they have some matchups that they really like and have been able to exploit. We’ve got to find a way to slow them down. They really hurt us on perimeter jump shots. Our focus is generally on protecting the paint, but they’re really not looking to get to the paint a whole lot.’’

Of particular concern for the Magic is how they play defensively with primary contributors J.J. Redick and Ryan Anderson on the floor. Van Gundy wants to play both Redick and Anderson because of their ability to stretch the floor offensively and Anderson’s rebounding abilities, but their defensive deficiencies become exposed against the likes of Johnson, Crawford and Horford in one-on-one plays. Van Gundy wants 3-point shooters on the floor because the Magic made just 19 of 84 shots from beyond the arc in the regular season against the Hawks and only six of 22 on Saturday.

The Magic were a plus-14 in scoring with Redick on the floor for 18 minutes Saturday night, but Atlanta’s desire to attack him on the defensive end was apparent. ``They want a one-on-one game at both ends of the floor. They’ve played very successful in the way that they’ve wanted to play us this year,’’ Van Gundy said. ``We don’t want it to be played as a one-on-one game.

``The only big advantage we had (Saturday) night was with (Redick) out there,’’ Van Gundy continued. ``But obviously Johnson went right at him and they went at a lot of matchups. It was clear from (Saturday) that they’re going to go at Ryan virtually every time and go at J.J. virtually every time. We have to be prepared to deal with those things because those two guys help our offense and help give us more space on the floor. We need to play those guys, but we need to find ways to help those guys because Atlanta is going to go right at them.’’

Van Gundy said he isn’t worried about the psyche of his team as much as he is the group finding a way to defend better and spread the wealth offensively. He said there is no fear of a team that made it to the NBA Finals in 2009 and the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010 will lose its confidence.

``Every loss, every bad game – you have those tests all year long and during the playoffs and we’ve gone through a ton of them here,’’ Van Gundy said. ``I don’t worry about that (mental) stuff. People love to talk about the psychological things and the mindset of guys, but we just need to play better. What it’s going to come down to is, `Are we going to be able to contain Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford? Are we going to play their pick-and-rolls better? Are we going to have an answer for their post-ups? And can we get other people involved offensively and not turn the ball over 18 times?’ That’s what it comes down to and not a Game 1 loss. Our guys have been good (bouncing back) and I don’t sense guys being dejected.’’

John Denton writes for E-mail John at Submit a question to John for his mailbag segment at