Ulmer Previews The First Round Matchup

by Mike Ulmer
April 17, 2008

(TORONTO) - Pay no attention to the man in the middle.

Okay, thats impossible when the man in the middle is Dwight Howard. The fourth year Orlando Magic star is a monster of the midcourt who has quickly made himself the most dominating big man in the National Basketball Association and that includes Shaquille ONeal in Phoenix.

When the Raptors bound into Orlando for Game 1 of their series with the Magic on Sunday, the temptation will be to focus all your attention on Howard, the clubs leading scorer, shot blocker and rebounder.

That would be a mistake.

Its never about one guy, reminds the Raptors Rasho Nesterovic. Its always about the team.

The Raptors are, in fact, playing a team very much like themselves, a team built around a dominant man in the middle who is flanked by peripheral players matched to threes like honey and bees.

Just take a look at the shot totals. Howard played in every game for the Magic and he delivered monstrous numbers. Consider a .599 shooting percentage. He finished with a league best 14.2 rebounds a game and a scoring average of 20.7 a contest.

But the Magic offense isnt strictly about getting the ball to Howard as it might be to a superstar forward such as LeBron James. Its about shots. King James shot the ball 1,642 times this year and with a 30 point a night average, Id say he did okay. Carmelo Anthony aired it out 1,473 times and Al Jefferson threw it up 1,420 times. Dirk Nowitzki shot the ball 1,298 times.

Dwight Howard shot the ball 970 times or about the same amount of times as Zydrunas Ilgauskas would have in Cleveland had he not missed nine games with injuries.

Think about that for a moment. Dwight Howard gets about the same looks as Zydrunas Ilgauskas and if you work in the fact that LeBron commands everyones eye, the Big Z gets even choicer shots than the Magics best player and one of the leagues undisputed stars.

The Magic do not have a point guard of the caliber of Jose Calderon or T.J. Ford. Thats why the Raptors averaged three more assists a game this season.

What they do is look to Howard inside and if they find no room, the ball is bound for the basket, overland, from the three-point line.

The Magic go like the blazes from the arc. They made 801 this year, second most in league history.

I love the three-point shot, said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. Its an absolute necessity that when you have a guy like Dwight Howard in the middle you surround him with shooters. They can shoot the ball with confidence and know I will seldom say something bad about it.

Lets put this another way. The Raptors with Andrea Bargnani, Chris Bosh, Jose Calderon and Jason Kapono are built along the lines of a three-point shooting club. But Orlando used the three-pointer for 28 per cent of their scoring this season. The trey accounted for 21 per cent of the Raptors scoring, even though the Raptors had a slightly better percentage.

So the problem for the Raptors just begins with Orlando flipping the ball back outside. The Magic are better rebounding the ball than the Raps who sat 28th in the league at the end of the season. Howard averages an otherworldly 3.40 offensive boards per game. Thats two or three baskets after youve done everything right, youve denied the ball inside and forced a long, hopefully contested shot. Throw in a game-delaying, backboard-swaying throw down and, well you get the idea.

So here are the guys that will kill you.

Hedo Turkoglu, an eight-year vet is having his best season. Turkoglu is a matchup conundrum with a pulse. He is faster than most other guys who are six-foot-10 so he can breeze by a big defender. But a smaller, quicker guy on him and Turkoglu can see the floor more easily. For a big man, he passes the ball very well, he averaged five assists this season and he shoots .400 from the three. He averaged 19.2 points this year.

Now throw in Rashard Lewis and if you are beginning to think of New Jerseys big three last year, Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson, you are in the ballpark. Lewis is a proven scorer who loves the three point-shot and averaged 18.2 points per game.

The Magic like to run Jameer Nelson as the point guard and he too likes the three. He averages 10.9 points a game and 5.6 assists and there is more offence to come with Maurice Evans (8.9 points a game) and Keith Bogans who hit 148-three point shots this season and pumped his scoring average to 8.7 PPG almost exclusively with the three.

And now you know why the Magic went 52-30 this season.

So where does this leave your Raptors?

Im not sure they are in such bad shape.

For one thing, if they attack the interior they can hope to get Howard in foul trouble.

Howard averages better than three a game and has been disqualified three times this season. Chris Bosh has had good luck against him, Bosh is faster and because Howard is so bulky, any contact under the Orlando basket should result in a foul on one of the Orlando big men.

Nesterovics excellent play, observers say he is performing better than he has in years, means the Raptors have another inside threat and a heavy, thick body, to lay against Howard.

As well, the Raptors seem well suited to counter Turkoglu with Jamario Moon. At six-foot-eight, Moon is a few inches shorter than Turkoglu but he has footspeed and leaping ability to burn.

Carlos Delfino and Anthony Parker are excellent defensive players who can pressure the perimeter and harass outside shooters.

Then there is the wild card, Andrea Bargnani who could bury the memory of a poor season with a great playoff and the various machinations between Van Gundy and Raptors coach Sam Mitchell.

Put it all together and you have an intriguing match-up that should bring plenty of plot turns and twists. Remember there is one adage than never fails: live by the three, die by the three.