In the second round of last year’s NBA Eastern Conference playoffs, the Orlando Magic swept the Atlanta Hawks in the most lopsided rout in playoff history – one that cost Atlanta's then-coach Mike Woodson his job. This year, Atlanta appears to have righted itself and is poised to turn history around in their first-round playoff series with the Magic Tuesday night at Orlando’s Amway Center.
In Game 4 Sunday, Atlanta got an unusually strong performance off the bench from guard Jamal Crawford, who had 25 points to supplement Joe Johnson’s 20. In fact, the Hawks put together a solidly-balanced offense, with starting center Al Horford and guard Kirk Hinrich each posting 14 points. On the boards, the combined 31 rebounds from Horford, Johnson, and power forward Josh Smith had to be particularly satisfying when considering that center Zaza Pachulia, suspended (along with Orlando’s Jason Richardson) for an altercation in Game 3, had been somewhat ineffective in slowing down Orlando’s all-star center Dwight Howard.
In the paint, Orlando outscored Atlanta 46-28. But Atlanta’s three-point production and field-goal percentage were superior. Atlanta was 6-15 (40%) from the three-point stripe and hit 47% from the floor overall while Orlando could only manage a dismal 2 of 23, or 9%, from three-point land. And for the series, Orlando has hovered just below 40% field goal percentage – this from a team that hit over 46% of its shots during the regular season.
Orlando’s formula for Game 5 needs to be simple. Minimize turnovers, be patient with shots, get to the free-throw line where they excel, and keep Dwight Howard involved in the paint. Otherwise, the Magic are going to face a situation similar to that of the New York Knicks in losing their series to the Boston Celtics: one man (in the Knicks’ case, Carmelo Anthony) against a more spread-out and relentless scoring attack.
The Magic can’t rely just on Dwight Howard and a sparkling scoring performance off the bench by Gilbert Arenas. But when looking at precedent, I don’t think the Magic can conjure up what it takes to counter the Hawks' depth. Atlanta has just shown itself to be the more resilient and patient team in this series, and so I see them closing out the Magic on Tuesday.