I love the Hawks. Love, love, love, love, love, love, love ’em. I want to write sonnets to them on a breezy day as I sit in the grass with a bottle of Shiraz. I want to take them to the state fair and win them giant stuffed tigers. I want to meet their dads. I want to surprise them with breakfast in bed on their birthday with their favorite meal of eggs over medium, grapefruit and blueberry pancakes.
But they can’t win this series. They just can’t. It’s a terrible match-up for them.
When trying to evaluate how a Playoff series will transpire, I’m not really into the whole “so-and-so beat so-and-so in the regular season” thing. And neither should you be. There are way too many variables — injuries, road trips, back-to-backs, the general malaise of the 82-game schedule — to take any of that very seriously. A seven-game Playoff series is a whole different animal. There are no surprises after Game 1, and anything a team does will be figured out and adjusted to by the other team. (Unless, ya know, Vinny Del Negro or Isiah Thomas is coaching.)
Still, the degree to which the Magic stole the Hawks’ lunch money this year can’t be ignored.
November 26, 2009 – Orlando 93, Atlanta 76
January 9, 2010 – Orlando 113, Atlanta 81
January 30, 2010 – Orlando 104, Atlanta 86
To their credit, the Hawks did manage to take the last regular season match-up in late March, winning an odd, dramatic, 86-84 affair in the ATL when Josh Smith’s walk-off tip dunk overshadowed a huge shot by Vince Carter on the other end just seconds earlier. For Atlanta, that was a really big, confidence-inspiring win against a division rival. For Orlando, it was first time they had lost to this so-called “rival” in their previous seven outings.
It isn’t so much the scores that make this year’s games meaningful as it is simply how much the Magic dominated every facet of these games. The under-sized Hawks just have no answer for Dwight Howard (as much as I love Zaza Pachulia) and, even when he’s not scoring, his mere presence allows his teammates to score that much easier. Sure, this is true against all teams, but it’s all that much more pronounced against this particular team. And defensively, Superman disrupts everything the smaller, less athletic front line of the Hawks do well.
It’s strange for Josh Smith to find himself out-classed in the springs, quickness and strength departments, but Howard has him trumped in just about everything. Put it this way, Smoove was hands-down the second-best defender in the league this year, in part due to him just being a man among boys nearly every time he took the court. There wasn’t anyone within miles of him. Now take that distance, triple it and that’s how much further ahead Dwight is than him in everything he does at an elite level (including, perhaps, three-point shooting).
Al Horford will also likely struggle. Atlanta doesn’t run much offense through their center, instead letting Horford score by out-quicking his opponent to the bucket on cuts, quick drives and putbacks. Understandably, he has found it difficult to do any of those things against Dwight. Though the differences are not enormous, he has shot fewer times, scored less and rebounded less against the Magic this year than he did against the rest of the league. And with a ramped-up Howard who is — rhetorically — ready to stop committing so many silly fouls and keep himself in the game now that the nuisance of playing the Bobcats is behind him, don’t expect a lot of easy looks for Horford.
Much more importantly, the entire Magic team just plays good defense (third best in the league). They’re very hard to score against. And while the Hawks are the second-best offensive team in the league and, thus, will be able to score in bunches, they will not be able to execute as well as normal in this series. Especially not late. “Iso Joe” isn’t going to cut it down in Disney World, guys. How many big shots do we really expect Joe and Jamal to hit going rover? What else are they going to do? Go to Marvin Williams in the post? Pick and roll with Joe and Josh? I just don’t see enough end-of-game offense on this team. I mean, they often struggled to score on key possessions against the Bogut-less Bucks. Are they really going to come up with something that works against the Dwight-full Magic?
On the other hand, on the other end, the Magic (the fourth best offensive team in the league) will be able to score.
Early and often.
Jameer Nelson, in particular, has been playing inspired ball so far this postseason, eating Raymond Felton’s soul over and over again in the previous series. With two 32-point games under his belt and shooting percentages of 48.4% from the floor and 42.9% from three, don’t expect Mike Bibby to slow his roll much. Jamal Crawford neither. And it’s not like Mike Woodson can slide Joe Johnson over to check Jameer without leaving Vince Carter free to erupt.
Meanwhile, Rashard Lewis, even if he doesn’t play great individually, will be drawing Josh Smith out of the paint, negating at least some of the time he can spend intimidating on the interior. Throw in the fact that the Hawks like to switch everything, and there will be a lot of mismatches where Josh is nowhere near the paint. And if he’s out of the way, look for guys like Jameer, Vince, Mikael Pietrus (expected to play tonight), Matt Barnes and even JJ Redick to get to the hoop.
Speaking of that huge list of capable perimeter players (plus let’s not forget Ryan Anderson, Marcin Gortat and Brandon Bass on the interior), Orlando’s depth should be the final death blow. While I love their recently crowned — and deservedly so — Sixth Man of the Year, the Hawks don’t have much on the bench besides him and Zaza (sorry, Jeff Teague and Mo Evans). Good luck to Atlanta if ever Horford or Smoove get in foul trouble.
Add all this up, and it’s just really hard to see the Magic doing anything in this match-up other than brushing the dirt off their shoulder and then sitting around, waiting to see how much Boston can wear down the Cavs before the inevitable Eastern Conference Finals we’ve all (except for Mo Williams) been waiting for commences.
Thanks for this season, ATL, but, unfortunately, this is where we have to part ways.
I’ll always remember you.
Magic in 6.