Posted by Matt Moore
The forgotten series. The Magic and Hawks face off in the 4-5 matchup, traditionally nothing more than an also-ran series. It's usually one of the most competitive, but it's also usually the least sexy because of the lack of elite teams involved. That archetype certainly fits here. The Magic's window seems to have shut once and for all as the trade for Jason Richardson and Gilbert Arenas along with Hedo Turkoglu has failed to return the Magic to a 2009 level of perimeter lethality. Dwight Howard's put in an MVP-worthy season, even if he won't win, but still fails to make an impact that drives the word "unstoppable."
The Hawks? The Hawks are the quietest successful disaster story, ever. They gave Joe Johnson a max contract no one thought he was worth, then extended Al Horfor which everyone thought should happen. They upgraded at point trading Mike Bibby for Kirk Hinrich, and won enough games to land in the five spot after an early season run through an easy schedule. But whenever faced with a key moment, the Hawks have been ran over and through. Except against the Magic.
II. What happeneed: A Look at the Season Series
The Hawks topped the Magic 3-1 in the regular season. The Magic are heavy favorites based on Howard and playoff experience, but the Hawks have been in the playoffs the last three seasons prior this year's, and have made the second round twice. They are an afterthought in the playoff race. But that doesn't mean they're push overs, especially against Orlando.
The Magic's only victory over the Hawks came when Dwight Howard dropped 27 points and 11 rebounds. Howard averaged less than 20 points per game against the Hawks this season, largely due to foul trouble. Al Horford is the most underrated All-Star in the league, a terrific defensive presence that can manage Howard as well as work with an effective double-team. Jameer Nelson averaged 19 per game against the Hawks, but bigger was Josh Smith who averaged 18 points, 11 rebounds and over 2 blocks per game against the Magic.
III. The Easy Stuff: Josh Smith is going to destroy everyone
Ryan Anderson and Brandon Bass split time for the Magic at power forward, with the occasional appearance from Hedo Turkoglu. None of those three players have the skillset necessary to handle Smith, which is why he put up such strong numbers against the Magic. Bass isn't fast enough to handle Smith's explosion, Anderson doesn't possess the strength to match him in the post, and Turkoglu doesn't have either of those traits. Smith's going to be able to slice through defenders like they were made of Sriracha.
Smith doesn't take up a ton of shots, he works for easy ones and has tailed off on ill-advised jumpers in his career. He's never going to be the dominant force many hoped he would become, but he can make a huge impact. The question here will be if he can make a significant impact across a seven a game series on the glass and helping defend Howard. Smith works so much from the perimeter and swoops in on rebounds. But Howard takes up so much space, that strategy can suffer at times. Smith needs to be a focal point on both sides of the floor for the Hawks to win this series.
IV. Secret of the Series: The Maginot 3-point Line
Did you know that the Hawks allow the fifth fewest 3-pointers made? And that they allow the fourth worst percentage from the arc? The Hawks have long, versatile wing defenders and close out hard on 3-pointers. That's going to put a huge crimp on the Magic's style. The Magic need to get their offensive flow going, and that meanes 3-pointers. But if the Hawks stay home and force the Magic to beat them with perimeter penetration off the dribble, the Hawks may have a shot at this thing. Kirk Hinrich is a significant enough upgrade over Jameer Nelson that he'll succeed where Bibby failed last season. From there it's up to Smith and Marvin Williams to close out, along with Joe Johnson. Smith once again comes in handy here against Ryan Anderson. Smith's athleticism will allow him to help defend inside on doubles and recover on Andreson effectively. It's all about spacing, and the Hawks have the length to cause problems in that area.
For the Magic, they need to get the advantage off their bench with their shooters. Jason Richardson will get his fair share, but the rest have to step up, including J.J. Redick and Gilbert Arenas. If Arenas continues his poor play, the Magic are going to find long runs during the bench unit minutes. The Hawks are a paper tiger but they've still got claws.
V. The Dinosaur Narrative: The Magic Rebound myth
Having the best rebounder in the playoffs doesn't assure you the best rebounding. The Magic are thought to have the edge on the glass in this series thanks to the existence of Howard along with Bass and Anderson. But the Hawks outrebounded them by 5 on averge in the season series. They tied the Magic on the offensive glass 9.3 to 9.8. Those second-hand opportunities are thanks (again) to Smith's athleticism, Horford's savvy know-how and effort, and Joe Johnson's size advantage over smaller, thinner guards. It's a fundamental part of the Magic's approach, and the Hawks are able to neutralize it. Just because Howard's massive doesn't mean the Magic have an advantage on the glass.
VI. The Line-Item Veto:
PG: Kirk Hinrich is still a very good defender but his reputation has suffered a bit over the last few years. Nelson is as inconsistent as they come, but he usually excels until he hits a wall, then plummets in production. Expect him to have another big series.
SG: Joe Johnson's numbers have fallen across the board in the first year of his zillion year, zillion dollar contract. He and Jason Richardson are likely to play to a tie. The big question will in terms of usage and how many possessions Johnson racks up.
SF: The Hawks have been using lineups with Horford at 4, moving Smith to the 3 spot. But Marvin Williams still gets the most time at the 3. He and Turkoglu are essentially a wash, with Turkoglu's play making ability giving him a slight edge, if only for his entry passing with Dwight Howard.
PF: We've been over this. Smith, Horford, whoever is here is better than anyone Orlando's got, and Orlando's got a few good players here.
C: Uh, yeah, I'll go with the big guy in blue, thanks.
Bench: The Magic peel Gilbert Arenas off, along with either Anderson or Bass. J.J. Redick is banged up but very good when healthy. Chris Duhon has a pulse. . The Hawks have Zaza Pachulia, Collins at times, Jeff Teague, and, oh, yeah, Jamal Crawford. Hawks get the edge.
Coaching: Larry Drew has not impressed in his first season. Stan Van Gundy is arguably a top three coach in the league. Gotta go with SVG.
This series will actually be pretty interesting. All the matchups point towards the Hawks being able to make a run and knock off the Magic. But we've seen this kind of situation with the Celtics versus the Heat last year. You have to trust the tested playoff team that's won before. Factor in the chance that Nelson steps up and Howard's ability to take over a game every now and the Magic are still the favorites, if for no other reason than their defense. Prediction: Magic in 6.
VIII. CBSSports.com Video Preview
Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic will take on Joe Johnson and the Atlanta Hawks in round 1 of the NBA Playoffs. Who will come out on top? Ken Berger joins Ian Eagle for an in-depth look at this fierce matchup.