I am impressed by their 33-9 record, and even moreso by their recent West Coast swing that saw them 4-0 against the likes of the Spurs, Lakers and Nuggets, a streak which brought their NBA-best road record to an astonishing 17-5. Coach Stan Van Gundy has them playing the style of offense best suited to his scoring-studs’ abilities, and their rock-solid defense has them amongst the lead leaders in allowed field-goal percentage at 42.6%, good for third best behind the Celtics and Cavaliers and ahead of the Pistons.
This is, by all accounts, a better Magic team than the one which bowed out to the Detroit Pistons 4-1 in last season’s Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. As my esteemed colleague wrote earlier this week, the time has come to take the Orlando Magic seriously. They are to say the least a very capable squad and one that has elevated itself into the upper echelon of the NBA.
Unless something drastic happens between now and playoff time, however, I do not expect the Magic to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Boston Celtics or (probably) even the Detroit Pistons in a seven-game playoff series. I know a lot of you out there will disagree, especially with my assertion that they will not best the up-and-down Pistons.
Hear me out, and rest assured that my opinion is hardly based on last night’s defeat at the hands of the Boston Celtics. A quick search of the ETB Archives will reveal that I’ve long been one of those Magic critics who, while impressed with their progress the past few seasons, has remained skeptical about their depth, their leadership at the point, Dwight Howard’s still-in-development offensive game, and their reliance on the three-ball.
It’s been so far, so good on just about all of those fronts during this regular season, but we all know defenses tighten up, pressures build, and rotations are shortened come playoff time… and I’m still unconvinced that the Magic’s perceived Achilles’ heels won’t ultimately come back to haunt them once again.
Why the Orlando Magic won’t win the East after the break…
The Dwight Howard Factor
Big Dwight Howard fan and consider him one of the most likeable superstar personalities in today’s NBA. I still think that he’s rather vulnerable, however, especially in the heat of the moment against all-world defenders with something to prove against one of the league’s newest big-ticket attractions. If you keep Howard out of the paint (easier said than done, I know), you will keep him in check. If you send him to the free-throw line instead of allowing him to dunk, you will keep him in check. And above all else, if you go at him repeatedly in the post with a guy willing to bang bodies, you most definitely will keep him in check.
Dwight Howard remains for the most part a one-dimensional offensive force, amazing as he is at it. Power dunks are a high-percentage shot, and fortunately for him he’s bigger than 98% of the league’s bigs and can mostly bully his way to the rim. But I’ve seen Cleveland’s Ben Wallace sufficiently nag heftier opponents like Shaquille O’Neal and get them thinking too much. Detroit’s Rasheed Wallace, long one of the game’s best interior defenders, knows how to pester Howard and force him to resort to forced hook shots and back-to-the-basket post-up moves, which are not his forte. And Kevin Garnett… well, we all know what he can do against any sized opponent.
With guys named Gortat and Battie backing him up, there will be pressure on Howard to stay focused, out of foul trouble, and on the court for 40+ minutes a night in the playoffs. It’ll be interesting to see how he performs in his third playoffs appearance.
Living and Dying by Three-Balls
The Magic are attempting 26.1 three-point attempt per game, second to only the free-chucking New York Knicks, and making them at about a 40% clip, tops in the league. But can they keep up such a pace in the playoffs against the swarming defenses of the Cavs, Celtics, and Pistons?
I have never been high on teams that heavily rely on three-point shooting in the playoffs–sure, it can be an advantage when you’re hot, but the Magic throw a lot of their eggs into this basket and you can bet that A) limiting three-point shooting and B) taking Howard out of his game will be the focal points of the aforementioned teams’ plan of attack on defense.
Having a plan and actually executing it are two entirely different things, but those three are all very much up to it and know it’ll be their key to punching their ticket past the Magic and into the next round.
Depth and Jameer Nelson
I liked the offseason acquisition of former Golden State Warrior Mickael Pietrus, who got off to a strong start this season before succumbing to a string of injuries that have had him sidelined for most of the past few months. If healthy, his athleticism and ability to get to the hole could potentially have a big impact in the playoffs. That’s looking like an increasingly big “if,” however, and the Magic’s only other options are promising rookie Courtney Lee, role player Keith Bogans, or three-point specialist J.J. Redick. I like Lee’s long-term potential, and Bogans can play defense and knock down threes from time to time, but neither are ideal backup plans. Redick is Redick.
Jameer Nelson is enjoying the best season of his career, averaging through 42 games 17.1 points (on 50% FG and including almost 2 triples per), 5.3 assists, 88% FT, 3.4 boards, and 1.2 steals. I want to see him extend this solid play into the postseason, however, where he’ll potentially be going toe-to-toe with guys like Rajon Rondo, Mike Bibby, Mo Williams, and Rodney Stuckey. His backup is 34-year-old Anthony Johnson, a veteran gamer who the Magic would rather not have to call upon much come May. From my view, the point-guard position is still a big question mark.
Depth is actually a bigger problem in the frontcourt. Should Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu, or Howard get in foul trouble or God forbid suffer an injury big or small, Van Gundy will be forced to turn to an undistinguished group headlined by Marcin Gortat, Tony Battie, Adonal Foyle, and Brian Cook. The three starters usually do a wonderful job of staying out of foul trouble, but their postseason minutes will increase.
All of Which Isn’t to Say…
All of the top Eastern Conference teams have their problems: Cleveland can’t seem to shake the injury bug, Boston’s bench has been underwhelming, Detroit has had serious issues finding a consistent rotation, Atlanta is still very young. The difference? Except for Atlanta, I’ve seen them all recently conquer their shortcomings under postseason pressure.
And this isn’t to take away from anything the Magic have accomplished or will accomplish over the next 4 months; like I said, I’m impressed. I for one, however, will be holding off on any effusive praise until I see them climb the postseason mountain that is the Celtics, Cavs, and Pistons.
– It’s Time to Take the Orlando Magic Seriously Again
– The Orlando Magic’s Inferiority Complex
– Jameer Nelson Showing Leadership Skills for Orlando Magic This Summer
– Orlando Magic on Empty the Bench