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Western Conference Playoffs: Race to the Eighth

Heading into tonight's games, there are five probable teams that can capture the eighth seed in the Western Conference. With so much focus on the top teams in the conference (Lakers, Spurs, Mavericks),

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Hawks need Joe Johnson to show up

Joe Johnson needs to contribute more for the Hawks to win.

The Orlando Magic still haven’t lost a game in the 2010 playoffs.

On the heels of a 43-point victory over Atlanta in Game 1, Orlando took a 2-0 series lead by beating the Hawks 112-98 Thursday night. After Atlanta went a solid 53-29 during the regular season, it has struggled to come away with victories in the postseason; the team barely squeezed by a depleted Bucks team in the first round, and it is now in a deep hole against Orlando.

John Hollinger wrote for ESPN today that Atlanta’s isolation-based offense isn’t a very good fit for playoff contests. While there’s an argument to be made there, the Hawks’ best isolation player hasn’t shown up in the series against the Magic so far. That’s the main reason for the embarrassing loss Tuesday night.

In the two games, Johnson has 29 points combined on dreadful 33 percent (9-27) shooting. He also has five turnovers in the two contests, and he has shot 2-8 from beyond the three-point line.

While he is surrounded by a fairly solid supporting cast, he needs to be a leader for a team that lacks another one-on-one scorer. His primary defender on the Magic? That’s Vince Carter, who’s not exactly Bruce Bowen on the defensive side of the ball.

In Game 3, Joe Johnson will have to establish himself on Atlanta’s home floor, where the Hawks play significantly better. He needs to make a serious effort on offense to put up 25 or more points. If he can do that, Josh Smith and Al Horford, who have played reasonably well up front, can complement that solid base of offense.

Moreover, if Johnson can shoot a better percentage, he can demand more attention from Orlando’s defense, opening up jump shots for Mike Bibby, Marvin Williams, and Mo Evans. In addition, a solid outing for Johnson sets the pace for Jamal Crawford to come off the bench and light up the scoreboard.

This offseason, Johnson will be part of the highly lauded free-agent class of 2010. Among names like LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade, he is in good company in the open market. That said, there has been much debate about whether Johnson deserves a maximum contract.

Given his poor postseason play, I’d be inclined to say he doesn’t. One of the most important aspect of a franchise player is his ability to lead his team to victory in the playoffs. LeBron does it, Wade does it, and Kobe Bryant does it. Johnson, however, does not. He still has a chance to redeem himself, though.

With a maximum of five games left in the series, he has an opportunity to show what he can do. Atlanta will be depending on it.

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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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Observations from the Playoffs thus far

With the 2010 NBA playoffs underway, here are some of the things I’ve noticed this weekend in the first games:

  • Point guards have been threats in losing efforts so far.
    1. When the Thunder were in striking distance of the Lakers, it was all thanks to Russell Westbrook. He repeatedly make the Lakers’ otherwise-solid defense look silly, diving into the lane and finishing with ease at the rim. I’ve said it all season: L.A. can’t handle the quick point guards. If Westbrook can recreate that production for the rest of the series, and Kevin Durant gets back on track, Oklahoma City has a serious chance to make some noise.
    2. In the Cleveland-Chicago series, Derrick Rose was the only semblance of offensive production for the Bulls, and although he shot a low percentage, he played decent ball against a stingy Cavaliers defense.
    3. Jameer Nelson absolutely lit up the Bobcats in the first half of their contest.
  • The underdogs are finding a way to stick around.
    1. Chicago, despite trailing to Cleveland big, made the game somewhat interesting at times.
    2. Oklahoma City gave L.A. a run for its money even into the fourth quarter.
    3. The Heat were in striking distance after Kevin Garnett’s eruption on the sidelines.
    4. Charlotte, too, was able to stay in the picture by drawing well-timed fouls on Vince Carter and Dwight Howard.
  • There probably won’t be any upsets in the first round, although San Antonio has an outside chance.
  • The stars aren’t going to be the only factors. Carmelo Anthony’s the exception for now.
    1. Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant shot for poor percentages in their first game.
    2. Dwight Howard, although a beast on defense, was shut down completely on the offensive end.
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NBA Today: March 29

  • The day after I write about Vince Carter’s importance to a successful Orlando playoff run, he leaves the team’s game with a sprained toe.
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Making Magic: Will VC do the trick?

The Magic made the finals in June. Will Vince Carter help them do one better in 2010?

The Orlando Magic really didn’t stand much of a chance against the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals last June. Certainly, a converted layup in the final seconds of Game 2 could have swayed the momentum in Orlando’s direction, but I think the Lakers still would have pulled out the series victory with ease.

As March winds down, the Magic are once again going to make the playoffs. But considering that late exit from the championship series last year, is there any reason we should expect that they’ll have a chance to defeat the Lakers in 2010?

There is — and his name is Vince Carter.

Don’t get me wrong: VC hasn’t played up to expectations this year. His PER is down about two-and-a-half points compared to last season, and his points, rebounds, and shooting percentages are all down, too. But to suggest that Carter is a step down from Hedo Turkoglu (whom the Magic let go in a de facto swap for Carter) is just an absolute crock.

Carter shouldn’t expect to be putting up the same stats as he did in ’08-’09 while one of the few offensive bright spots on a hapless Nets roster. He goes from being the first option on offense to being the second (behind Dwight Howard), with two other starters who also want their touches in Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson. What Carter should be expected to do, however, is get the ball in the hoop in times of need for Orlando. For years, the Magic have lacked a go-to player on the perimeter (and to propose that Turkoglu is that go-to player is ridiculous). Howard can’t be relied upon down the stretch, as he’ll be double and triple teamed around the rim. Having a player like Carter, who can hit the 20-foot fade, adds a dynamic to the team’s offense that it previously lacked.

So the Magic go from Courtney Lee to Carter at the 2 and from Turkoglu (who’s sucking it up in Toronto) to Matt Barnes, who is — believe it or not — having a better year than Hedo.

Let’s look, then, at how the Magic can match up and compete with the Lakers and the Cleveland Cavaliers, too. Sure, they could face other teams in the late stages of the playoffs, but these are the two squads I think they’ll actually have trouble beating.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavs made the move to bring in Shaq during the offseason specifically to counter the magic. O’Neal’s one of the league’s few players who even has a hope of successfully defending Dwight Howard in the post in single coverage, and he’ll be resistant to having any help anyway. Nevertheless, Howard will do work down low.

The addition of Vince Carter bodes well against the Cavs, though. While he’ll draw a tough defensive assignment in Anthony Parker, he’ll stretch the D as a whole, giving Howard more room to operate in the paint. Figure in Rashard Lewis to draw Varejao and Antawn Jamison away from the rim with the constant threat of his perimeter shooting, and I expect Orlando will dominate the Cavs down low.

That LeBron guy poses a bit of an issue, though. Matt Barnes will draw the assignment for the most part, and he won’t be able to defend the King on his own. His defensive rating is a respectable 102, but LeBron is too strong and big for the lanky Barnes to contain him. Accordingly, the Magic will have to double, leaving the various sharpshooters (Parker, Jamison, Delonte West, and Mo Williams) open for jumpers. But a dominating inside games always beats a dominating outside one. The Magic move on.

Los Angeles Lakers

It’s daunting to even think about playing L.A. Should we see a rematch of last year’s NBA finals, the Magic should be shaking in their boots. It’ll be a trade off of dominating post players, as Howard will outwork Andrew Bynum down low and Pau Gasol is too physical to be contained by Lewis. Kobe will be Kobe, and the Magic don’t have Lee to at least try to defend him this year, not that he could really curb Kobe’s production anyway.

Orlando will have a fully healthy Jameer Nelson who will tear Derek Fisher apart with his quickness and shooting ability. So chalk up that advantage in favor of the Magic. Vince Carter, too, will an added outside offensive presence that Turkoglu couldn’t provide last year. However, the Lakers have a premiere defensive player in Ron Artest who should be able to keep VC in check (I expect they’ll put Artest and Carter and hide Bryant on the less-threatening Barnes until the final minutes.

Because of the addition of Artest, I think the Lakers repeat if this is the matchup. If it were still Ariza playing the 3, I might think differently. But Carter won’t be able to overpower artest, and Kobe will be fresh for crunch time when that stacked roster really depends on him most.

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Breaking down Josh Smith’s game-winning slam

I don’t pretend to be much of an Xs and Os guy when it comes to the NBA, but I figured I’d weigh in today on Josh Smith’s buzzer-beating putback in the Magic-Hawks game last night because it’s a result you so rarely see at the end of NBA games. Typically, such a scenario results in a contested or fading 18- to 20-foot jumpshot (which is what this was looking like) that seals or blows the game.

Here, though, Smith made a high-basketball-I.Q. play to clinch the victory (and, consequently, a playoff berth) for his team. Let’s break it down below.

In the screenshot above, notice Josh Smith at the right wing with his arms up looking for the pass. In the red circle is Dwight Howard, who is assigned to guard Smith on the play. Howard is totally out of place defensively, but nothing short of an on-the-spot stroke would compel Joe Johnson (on the left wing, guarded by Vince Carter) to dish the ball to Smith for a three-point jumper. Additionally, Howard knows where his man is, but as the defensive star he is, knows it’s better for him to be in the paint to contest any drives to the lane. He points out Smith to let his teammates know where Smith is and that he’s not covering him.

As expected, Johnson drives and beats Carter to the baseline, where he pulls up for a 15-foot side fade. Notice Dwight Howard’s shift toward Johnson’s position, as he had anticipated that Johnson might foolishly attempt to go to the rim. As a result of Howard’s position, notice that Smith is still wide open between the right wing and corner.

The shot goes up, and four of five Magic players collapse on the rim looking for the rebound. Unfortunately, expecting that there won’t be time on the clock left for another attempt, they give a halfhearted effort to box out. Rashard Lewis, who is shown standing on the right block, does not realize Josh Smith has begun to crash the boards behind him and does not get his body on him.

As a result, Smith gets right to the rim for the put-back slam. At that point, Smith is too athletics and has too much momentum for even Dwight Howard to stop, given Lewis’s lack of court awareness on the play. As if the validity of the basket (with respect to time) were ever in doubt, you can see here that the ball is through the hoop before time expires.

While this loss isn’t too crucial as far as Orlando’s regular-season fate and playoff seeding are concerned, it is this type of play that can cost you in April, May, and June (the NBA playoffs are just ridiculously long). Stan Van Gundy won’t stand for mental errors of this sort. Physical errors like Courtney Lee’s blown layup in Game 2 of the finals last year hurt, but they happen no matter what. You need to eliminate mental errors to come away with a championship.

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