The Orlando Magic are in cruise control

Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson will have to play well for the Magic to win.

The Orlando Magic have played five games so far this postseason. The Orlando Magic have also won five games so far this postseason.

After easily dispatching the No. 7 Charlotte Bobcats in the opening round of the playoffs, the Magic decisively took Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals with a 114-71 beatdown of the Atlanta Hawks Tuesday night.

Despite frequent foul trouble for the team’s star, Dwight Howard, and general subpar play by Vince Carter, the Magic have never really come close to losing a game.

Why? Because the team is staying within its identity and playing the type of basketball the roster is designed for.

The Orlando Magic are a team of shooters with one dominant inside presence. And when it is played correctly, the results are fantastic. But one will not function without the other’s contributions.

Orlando’s offense is predicated on the drive-and-kick and post-up-and-kick phenomena. Jameer Nelson feeds Dwight Howard on the block, and if he can’t get to the hoop, he waits for the double team and kicks it to one of three or four open shooters. Alternatively, Nelson or Carter drives to the hoop, and if there’s no lane, one of them kicks it out to an open shooter.

The Magic are fortunate to have players like Rashard Lewis who can put pressure on the defense from both the perimeter and the interior and a plethora of shooters as targets for Howard’s kick outs.

So far in these playoffs, the system has worked great. Nelson is seeking retribution for not playing well in last year’s playoffs, Lewis shot over 50 percent in the team’s first-round series, and the role players (like Mickael Pietrus) are adding key contributions off the bench.

But that’s the bright side of the Magic. The Dr. Jekyll side, if you will. Mr. Hyde hasn’t yet shown up, and for the sake of Stan Van Gundy’s health, I hope he never does.

What happens when the three pointers stop falling? Dwight Howard bangs in the middle, kicks it out to the open man, and all they get out of it is a brick off the side of the rim. The shooters start to press and take contested 20-foot fadeaways. Dwight Howard loses his confidence in his teammates and tries to fight through two and three defenders at a time.

This is Orlando’s worst nightmare. And critics of the team will point out that the team’s five wins have come against two significantly weaker teams. What happens when they play teams like the Cavaliers or the Lakers who are aggressive in closing out shooters and have the height to contend with D12? We shall see.

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Examining Orlando’s Play

Dwight Howard and Vince Carter need to step up if the Magic hope to make the NBA finals again.

The No. 2 Orlando Magic took a 3-0 series advantage over the No. 7 Charlotte Bobcats, narrowly besting Larry Brown’s team 90-86 Sunday.

It seems that the Magic will have no problem dispatching the Bobcats and may very well do so in four games. If Orlando wins, it will face the winner of the series between the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks, and completing the first-round sweep will award them with some valuable extended rest before the conference semifinals.

In this first round, Orlando has played very well. While the Magic arguably have much more talent than the Bobcats do, Orlando won Game 3 in Charlotte, where the Bobcats lost only nine teams throughout the entire regular season.

One of the big stories for Orlando has been the play of Jameer Nelson. In the three games so far, Nelson has averaged 22.5 points (including 26 points in only 22 first-game minutes), including 52 percent three-point shooting and 92 percent from the charity stripe. Raymond Felton and the others have been totally unable to defend him, and Stan Van Gundy has taken notice.

Nelson missed most of last year’s playoffs because of injury, deferring to Rafer Alston to start at the 1-guard. Nelson did return for the Finals against L.A., but he didn’t start.

Could Nelson’s healthy play in the postseason be the key to Orlando’s winning a championship? It very well could be.

All that said, the Magic have had their problems this postseason. Those issues most clearly manifest themselves through the play of Dwight Howard and Vince Carter, the primary and secondary scores for Orlando, respectively.

Carter is shooting just 32.5 percent from the field against the Bobcats and, in 12 attempts, hasn’t hit a triple. With only 13.7 points per game, he needs to step up his play if he aspires to help the team defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers and whomever else they face.

Howard has been an absolute menace on the defensive end of the ball. In three games, he has 18 blocks and 24 rebounds in only 27.7 minutes per contest.

That’s a problem, though. He has not yet eclipsed the 30-minute mark this postseason. He had five personal fouls in the first two games and fouled out after just 26 minutes in Game 3. He needs to refine his defense to stay on the floor and help his team win.

Furthermore, his offensive output has been lacking. Taking only seven shots a game, Howard has scored 11 points per contest. He is also struggling mightily from the line, shooting 11-28 on free throws.

Sure, the Magic are winning. They’re beating a respectable Bobcats team with relative ease. But unless they get their two biggest stars on track, they shouldn’t even think about winning the 2010 NBA title.

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