April 18, 2008
Orlando Magic: 52-30, 3rd seed
Toronto Raptors: 41-41, 6th seed
Head-to-Head: Orlando won season series 2-1
Let’s be honest: this is hardly a sexy matchup. The NBA seems to agree by scheduling Game 1 for Sunday afternoon at 12:30pm, an early hour when most people are still groggy from last night’s foolish absinthe binge. Aside from All-Star Chris Bosh, the Toronto Raptors hold about as much appeal to the casual NBA fan as John McCain does to a women’s liberal arts college. With all due respect to Rasho Nesterovic, Jose Calderon, Andrea Bargnani, etc., the heavily Euro-centric approach to roster management usually doesn’t translate to big ratings or feverish interest outside of Canada, especially when they’re not considered even semi-serious contenders.
That’s not to demean these players contributions or the respectable season they’ve had. Nesterovic, for example, awoke from a five-year slumber and finished out by re-establishing himself as an above-average defender in the post and scoring in double digits 17 straight games (I’m not counting the last match, when he scored just 2 points in 15 meaningless minutes). Third-year PG Calderon led the league in assist-to-turnover ratio with a rock-solid 5.38 score. And, of course, Bosh was Bosh, averaging 22.3 points, 8.7 boards, 2.6 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, and 49% shooting. This team may not have all that much panache, but there’s plenty o’ talent here, to be sure… and I haven’t even mentioned the Raps’ second-leading scorer, Anthony Parker, or rookie Jamario Moon, who’d win the league’s Biggest Feel-Good Story Award if it actually existed.
The Orlando Magic coasted to the Southeast Division title on the broad-shouldered back of Dwight “Superman” Howard, who took his game to a new level, Pantera style, in averaging an astounding 20.7 points, 14.2 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, and 60% FG. And by the way, he won’t turn 23-years-old until December 8. Petulant Shaquille O’Neal can pointlessly disparage Howard all he likes, but there’s a new “most dominant big man in the NBA” and he plays for Orlando, not Phoenix. Howard is the centerpiece of one of the league’s most improved starting frontcourts, one which also includes first-year Magic PF Rashard Lewis as well as Hedo Turkoglu, one of the leading candidates to be named the NBA’s Most Improved Player after averaging 19.5 points, 5.7 boards, 5 assists, and 2 triples/per.
After closing out the regular season with a 3-5 record in April, the Raptors head into the postseason with flagging confidence and plenty of questions from the top of the roster to the bottom. Though the Magic are certainly no pushovers, the Raps must feel incredibly fortunate to have dodged the Detroit Pistons bullet. Orlando hasn’t had much to play for since early March, so it’ll be interesting to see if they can flip the high-intensity switch back on and dominate a team that’s ripe for the taking.
ETB breaks down the Magic-Raptors series and rolls out our predictions after the jump…
Kenny Smith calls Orlando’s guards “underrated,” but from my view they’re simply erratic. Starting PG Jameer Nelson has been up-and-down all year and at times even been benched in favor of backup Carlos Arroyo, a guy who has no business ever being in the starting lineup for any reason other than necessity due to injury. When the 6-0 Nelson is on, he can be deadly from outside the arc (41% shooting threes) and precise in his alley-oop setups for easy Howard dunks on the blocks. On bad nights, his shot is uglier than Eva Longoria sans 10 layers of makeup; he can always be abused by bigger, taller guards and is fortunate that his counterparts on Toronto, Calderon and T.J. Ford, don’t fit that mold.
Though capable of knocking down open shots and making a flashy pass or two, Arroyo is simply too careless and inconsistent to be relied upon in the postseason and is even more of a defensive liability than Nelson. Keyon Dooling could steal the majority of his minutes. Starting SG Maurice Evans, as well as backup Keith Bogans, are solid if unspectacular glue players who aren’t asked much more than to not turn the ball over, stay active on defense, and spot up for triple tries. These two combine for over 3 three-pointers and less than 2 turnovers/per, and have proven reliable.
The key for the Magic’s guards is to frustrate Toronto’s starting PG T.J. Ford with physicality and a determination to cool his jets and force him to set up in half-court sets, where he’s much less effective than in the open court. Ford emerged after Calderon graciously volunteered to relinquish his starting job, with the pint-sized speedster turning it up in April with per-game averages of 13.6 points, 7.5 assists, 1.4 steals, and 55% FG. Calderon, on the other hand, experienced a significant downtick in overall production since heading to the bench, especially with his shot. With their combination of speed and smarts, however, this tandem should have the edge over Orlando at PG.
Starting SG Anthony Parker has quietly had a solid all-around season, averaging just over 12 points and 1.6 three-pointers per for the second consecutive season. Listed at 6-6 and 215 pounds, his size compares favorably to the Magic’s Evans and Bogans, as does backup Carlos Delfino, who wrapped up his most productive NBA season—and first with the Raptors—but had a history of coming up small in the postseason during his first few years as a member of the Detroit Pistons.
I’m going to keep this as short and sweet as possible: the Magic have simply too much size and too much talent up front for Toronto to handle, and this is where the favored team will emphatically assert themselves and dominate. You already know that Superman Howard is one of if not the best finisher around the basket in the NBA, and though Nesterovic has some size and surprisingly solid shot-blocking talent, he will struggle to keep Howard in check. Bosh will likely take his turns guarding Howard as well, but I expect Orlando’s big man to exceed his season averages over the course of this series.
Turkoglu and Lewis combine for 5 triples/per, and both can also take it to the rim and hit the midrange shot: it’ll be on well-traveled rookie Jamario Moon as well as Bosh to limit the considerable damage both are capable of inflicting. Turk has been Orlando’s money man all season long, the guy they turn to when they need a bucket in the fourth quarter or to end an extended drought. Bosh fills that role for Toronto, and on most nights does it well, but you can bet that Magic coach Stan Van Gundy and his staff know this and will do whatever’s necessary—double teams, triple teams, throwing different defenders at him—to frustrate the All-Star and limit his open looks. If they can successfully limit Bosh, the other Raptor dominos will fall.
Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu Photo Credit: Icon SMI
Neither team has great frontcourt depth, but the Raptors do have a deeper cadre of backups of varying skill sets in Bargnani (perimeter-heavy game), Jason Kapono (three-point specialist), Kris Humphries and Joey Graham (bangers), and Primoz Brezec (low-post stiff). If they can get Magic’s starters in foul trouble and force them to give extended minutes to the Adonal Foyles and Pat Garritys of the world, this is where they could make up some lost ground.
Muscles, as in the lack of them on Toronto’s roster and the abundance of them for Orlando. While many predictions I’ve seen so far see a hard-fought, six- or seven-game series, I think that it could be shorter if the Magic make up their minds to be physical with Bosh, Ford, etc.. If they do, Toronto could wilt rather quickly, especially if/when they drop Games 1 and 2 in Orlando. This physicality may or may not be manifested in Dwight Howard picking up T.J. Ford, snapping him in half over his knee, then sucking out his bone marrow.
Andrew: Orlando Magic in six.
Brian: Orlando Magic in five.