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April 23, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
Winning Formula

by Kevin Pelton

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at Atlanta 88, Orlando 84 (Atlanta leads 2-1)
Pace: 81.4
Offensive Ratings: Atlanta 104.9, Orlando 106.4

After seven head-to-head meetings this season, we've firmly established that the Orlando Magic cannot score on the Atlanta Hawks. Orlando's average of 82.5 points per game in the regular season was its lowest against any opponent, and in this series the Magic has done no better than Friday's 106.4 Offensive Rating, still well below the team's regular-season 109.9 points per 100 possessions.

As long as Jason Collins or Zaza Pachulia is on the floor, the Hawks can defend Dwight Howard without getting decimated, and that allows perimeter defenders to stay at home. Orlando shot 22.9 percent from deep against Atlanta during the regular season and is at 26.0 percent in this series. Take away the three and you've neutralized a huge chunk of Orlando's offense. Unless multiple non-Howard players get going at the same time--and no one really fit that description yesterday, other than Quentin Richardson making all three of his attempts from long distance off the bench--the Magic isn't going to score.

This isn't quite as bad as it sounds because the Hawks can't score on Orlando's defense either. So the result, aside from Atlanta's unsustainably hot shooting in Game One, is a bunch of outcomes that look like Game Three of this series: The two teams trading the lead down the stretch, with a pivotal play or two deciding the outcome.

In this case, it was Jamal Crawford who made the big plays the Hawks needed late in the game. His four-point play early in the fourth quarter reenergized Atlanta when the Magic threatened to take control of the game, and more famously Crawford banked in a three to turn a one-point lead into an insurmountable four-point advantage with just seconds remaining. Yes, Crawford got more than his fair share of good fortune on the final shot, but his decision making was sound throughout the fourth quarter, and the Hawks' offense was much more effective when it ran through the two-man game between Crawford and Al Horford rather than Joe Johnson isolations.

Having described Atlanta's winning formula, we now stop to note that it might be derailed in Game Four because of a skirmish in the final period Friday. Zaza Pachulia understandably took offense to being raked across the face by Dwight Howard--a play that certainly looked intentional--and Jason Richardson rallied to his teammate's defense. Pachulia responded by head butting Richardson multiple times, drawing an open-handed slap Rick James-style.

My expectation is that both players will be suspended a game, and though Richardson is Orlando's third-leading scorer and Pachulia a backup, this is terrible news for the Hawks. As much credit as Jason Collins has rightly gotten for his defense on Howard, he leaves Atlanta playing 4-on-5 on offense. The last two games, the Hawks have been more effective with Pachulia in the middle. During his 26 minutes of action on Friday, Atlanta was +7. Without Pachulia, Larry Drew will be forced to choose between putting Horford back at center and risking foul trouble or running out the sorry group of backup big men (Hilton Armstrong, Josh Powell and Etan Thomas) that Howard abused in Game One.

Meanwhile, both teams have played with their rotations. The Magic had some success with Hedo Turkoglu acting as the backup point guard in order to get Gilbert Arenas off the floor. Turkoglu was a -16 overall and made disastrous decisions down the stretch, but he was reasonably effective getting to the basket when matched against much smaller defenders and J.J. Redick was able to defend the point. The switch allowed Stan Van Gundy to create more time for Quentin Richardson, who has been one of his most effective players in this series and will likely see heavy action if Jason Richardson is out for Game Four.

Drew finished the game without starter Josh Smith on the floor, a decision that sounds bizarre on paper but made complete sense in the context of the game. The downside of the big lineups the Hawks are using is that, while they give Horford a favorable matchup on offense, they essentially force Smith to be a floor spacer on the perimeter. This is not an ideal role for the poor-shooting Smith, who compounded the issue with terrible decisions that led to costly misses and turnovers. We might continue to see Atlanta's three-guard lineup because Crawford has to be on the floor to finish games, as does Johnson, and Kirk Hinrich is the Hawks' best perimeter defender.

In the bigger picture, it was nice to see Atlanta enjoy a true home-court advantage and back that up with scrappy, energetic play early in the game. The Hawks weren't able to sustain that for 48 minutes, but it was a welcome contrast to last year's desultory performance at Philips Arena that was rightly scorned by Atlanta fans.

A quick note on the Magic having a higher Offensive Rating than the Hawks. While possession estimates even out over time, in a single game they can be thrown off by uncounted team offensive rebounds (that is, when a defensive player knocks the ball out of bounds after a miss) and whether free throws are shot in quantities of 1, 2 or 3. In this game, our estimates show Atlanta with four additional possessions. Obviously, this is impossible; the biggest possible difference the way we term possessions is two, if the same team takes the final shot in every quarter. Rest assured that the Hawks were in fact the (slightly) better team last night and this is no reflection on their play.

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

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