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May 5, 2010
Playoff Preview
Orlando-Atlanta

by Bradford Doolittle

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Yes, it is customary to post previews before a series starts. This one got lost in the shuffle of my travel plans, baseball writing responsibilities and the stubbornness of the Milwaukee Bucks, who insisted on dragging their first-round series with Atlanta to seven games. I write and post this before I've seen Tuesday's games, not that having watched would have materially changed the preview. It does, however, open me up for the possibility that what I'm writing already appears to be 180 degrees wrong. - BBD

This is the series where we really find out about the Atlanta Hawks. Before the season, Atlanta general manager Rick Sund was confident that the Hawks could take the next step with the same group as last season--plus Jamal Crawford--because of "growth from within." That aforementioned next step would mean a trip to the conference finals since Atlanta fell to Cleveland in four games in last season's second round. Well, here's their chance. Only the Orlando Magic stands in the way of Atlanta's proverbial next step.

Of course, the Magic represent a sizable obstacle. The Magic are seeking to take its own next step which, in Orlando's case, would mean an NBA championship. With the league's second-best units on both offense and defense and the NBA's best point differential and power rating, that title is well within the realm of possibility. So in the Orlando-Atlanta matchup, there is no "just happy to be here." One of these teams is going to go home in a couple of weeks with the gnawing feeling that the last eight months have been for naught.

Even though these teams have been battling for Southeast Division supremacy ever since the division came into existence, there is little playoff history between these two franchises. Orlando beat Atlanta in five games in the 1996 Eastern Conference semifinals--and that's it. Because the teams are both located in the southeast, share a division and because of the Dwight Howard connection (Howard is an Atlanta native), this has the potential to be a nice little NBA rivalry. A hard-fought series over the next two weeks would go a long way towards establishing some healthy animus between the teams. Unfortunately, the rivalry could be short-lived. Whereas the Magic look to be locked into the NBA's elite tier for the foreseeable future, we don't know what the Hawks will look like going forward. This season may have been the high-water mark for this version of the Hawks. (Granted, we've been wrong about the Hawks before.)

Whether or not you want to rely on the regular-season results between the teams as a barometer for the series depends on the team for which you are rooting. Orlando won three of the four head-to-head matchups against Atlanta, with an average margin of victory of 16.3 points. The Hawks did take their last encounter with Orlando, 86-84 at the Philips Center on March 24. But if you go with the big picture over recent trends, which of course you should, you have to believe the Hawks don't match up so well with Orlando.

WHEN ORLANDO HAS THE BALL

Pace: 89.9 (18th NBA)
Magic Offensive Rating: 114.6 (2nd)
Hawks Defensive Rating: 109.3 (14th)

Orlando runs an inside-out offensive scheme, using Dwight Howard to collapse defenses and spreading the floor with the league's best array of three-point shooters. Even when Howard isn't involved in the attack, Orlando still functions as a drive-and-kick team. For that matter, they also love to kick out off of the offensive glass. Everything for Orlando is at the rim or behind the arc, which is why they've been among the league's most-efficient offensive teams under Stan Van Gundy. Atlanta is strong on the interior defensively, with Josh Smith and Al Horford ranking among the best stoppers at their respective positions. The Hawks aren't as good on the perimeter, which is why they achieved a middling ranking in regular-season Defensive Rating.

In the four regular-season games between the teams, Orlando scored a couple of points below their overall Offensive Rating, but in reality, their Four Factors were all more or less in line with season norms. The teams played at a slow pace against each other (87.5), which you'd expect given the methodical pace at which both teams operate. In this series, you could see good offense masked by slow tempo.

Head-to-head, it'll be imperative for Atlanta's Al Horford to stay out of foul trouble because it's not likely that Hawks fans want to see too much of Zaza Pachulia guarding Howard. Orlando's Rashard Lewis always presents an interesting challenge for Atlanta's Josh Smith. Smith has the length and athleticism to shut Lewis down. However, in doing so, Lewis' range draws Smith away from the basket. With Horford occupied with his tough assignment against Howard, that opens up the middle for Jameer Nelson and Vince Carter to penetrate. Joe Johnson is a good enough defender to keep Carter in front of him, but neither Mike Bibby nor Crawford is likely to do much to keep Nelson from getting where he wants to go. Atlanta coach Mike Woodson has a decision to make: Stick with the three-point shooters or collapse to help. There may not be a right answer.

The Hawks are well known for their preference to switch on the pick-and-roll. Good for them. Meanwhile, Atlanta was middle of the pack overall defensively, ranking 23rd in pick-and-roll spots when the ball handler shoots and 20th when the screener gets the ball. Orlando ranked second and fourth, respectively, in those areas on offense. Versatility can be a dangerous commodity in the wrong hands.

WHEN ATLANTA HAS THE BALL

Pace: 88.1 (27th NBA) Regular Season
Hawks Offensive Rating: 114.1 (4th)
Magic Defensive Rating: 105.3 (2nd)

While Johnson is the go-to guy for the Hawks, Atlanta is in reality an equal-opportunity team that can attack you from every position on the court. Versatility is the name of the game on both ends of the floor for the Hawks. While Marvin Williams generally bides his time as a spot-up shooter from the corner, he has the athleticism to attack when the opportunity presents itself. Al Horford is a solid back-to-the-basket center, but is also tremendous from the high post. Smith altered his game this season to focus on high-percentage shots, but he's played away from the basket often in his NBA career. Johnson has evolved to the point where he can initiate the offense, which often leaves Bibby as a spot shooter, but of course Bibby isn't all that far removed from being a top-flight lead guard in his own right. Crawford provides the X-factor, a streak shooter that can carry the offense for quarters at a time. For Orlando, the defensive scheme is simple. Pinch the outside shooters and funnel everything towards Howard, the game's best defensive player.

Here's where the outlook seems dreary for Atlanta. Whereas Orlando's offense operated at business-as-usual efficiency against the Hawks in the regular season, the same can't be said of Atlanta's offense against the Magic's defense. In four regular-season meetings, Orlando held the Hawks to an aggregate 94.0 Offensive Rating--20.1 points worse than Atlanta's overall mark. The Hawks had the NBA's fourth-ranked offense in the regular season, but the dominant Orlando defense turned them into something significantly worse than the New Jersey Nets. Orlando was able to keep Atlanta off the line, off the glass and to pinch the Hawks' shooters. It's what the Magic does.

Smith was a facilitator on offense for the most part this season, showing a mature willingness to serve as a functionary on the offensive end. The result was a much-improved Atlanta attack. However, Smith is going to have to be more assertive in this series. He doesn't need to go back to launching three or four three-pointers per game, but he does need to get his point total into the 20s. He represents the one clear-cut advantage for Atlanta among the head-to-head matchups on the Hawks' end of the floor. Smith can and should do damage against Rashard Lewis, who can match Smith's length, but not his strength or athleticism. Atlanta may also want to run more because teams just can't score consistently on Orlando in the halfcourt. It may not be the Hawks' game, but it won't be easy to keep the scoreboard turning unless they scramble the game a little bit. Beyond that, it's essential that Bibby and Williams knock down whatever open looks come their way.

Also to watch: Atlanta is solid pick-and-roll team, which isn't surprising given the versatility of their primary high screeners, Smith and Horford. However, because of Howard, Orlando is the league's best team defending the pick-and-roll.

PREDICTION

The series seems pretty clear-cut. The Hawks' offensive style should run them right into the Orlando defensive buzzsaw. Meanwhile, the Hawks don't have the perimeter defenders to corral Orlando's rangy three-point gunners. And while Horford is an outstanding player, he's not a good matchup for Howard, though foul issues could change that. Overall, the regular-season evidence that we have on these teams is too overwhelming to ignore.

Magic in 5.

SECOND-ROUND LOG5 CHART
Team Sd   POW    R4%    R2%    R1%
cle   1  59.2  77.1%  47.3%  31.2%
bos   4  49.7  22.9%   6.7%   2.8%
----------------------------------
orl   2  59.4  66.7%  33.3%  19.7%
atl   3  53.2  33.3%  12.7%   6.8%
----------------------------------
lal   1  56.5  59.3%  35.9%  16.4%
uta   5  55.1  40.7%  21.1%   8.0%
----------------------------------
phx   3  53.7  47.6%  21.2%   8.1%
sas   7  53.8  52.4%  21.8%   7.0%
-==================================
Note: The percentages denote each 
team's chances advance to each round.

Data from My Synergy Sports was used to compile this report..

Follow Bradford on Twitter at @bbdoolittle.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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