The Pacers and Magic haven't met in a playoff game since June 4, 1995, when Shaquille O'Neal's 25 points and 11 rebounds in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference finals gave Orlando to its crack at an NBA championship. If that seems like a lifetime ago to fans of these teams, consider that you could almost say the same thing about last spring. A lot has changed since playoff time last season.
For the last few years, the Magic have been the perennial third team in the East, at least in consensus opinion if not actual seed. First they chased the Celtics and the LeBron James-led Cavaliers. Last season, it was LeBron's Heat and the upstart Chicago Bulls. Always there was the Magic, never quite the favorites, but always a dark-horse threat, with the game's best center and a style of play that caused all sorts of matchup problems. One year it even worked, when the Magic crashed through to their second Finals trip in 2009. The decline since was first gradual, then sudden, as Ernest Hemingway might say.
Meanwhile, Indiana made the postseason last season for the first time in a half-decade. The Pacers eked their way in on a 37-45 record and then were applauded for putting up a good fight in a five-game, first-round loss to Chicago. We liked what we saw emerging in the Pacers well enough entering the season to declare them to be in the mix for this year's No. 3 seed in the East. And here they are.
Not only did Indiana establish itself as the third-best team in its conference, but in doing so they earned this first round matchup with the Magic. A season of chaos and distraction has resulted in this for Stan Van Gundy: Dwight Howard is injured, away from the team, and everyone seems happy about it. No one more so than Frank Vogel's Pacers, who are playing the team that everyone wants to be playing right now. Not only is Howard missing, but Glen Davis is hobbled by an ankle injury that will likely keep him out of Saturday's series opener. And Hedo Turkoglu just returned to action on Thursday.
Orlando won three of the four regular-season meetings, but Howard played in all of those games. This has the potential to be a long, but short, series for the Magic.
(Note: Data from MySynergySports.com and NBA Stats Cube was used in this piece.)
WHEN INDIANA HAS THE BALL
Pace: 93.4 possessions per 48 minutes (19th NBA)
INDIANA Offensive Rating: 103.5 points per 100 possessions (9th NBA)
ORLANDO Defensive Rating: 101.7 points per 100 possessions (14th NBA)
Our analysis of Orlando is complicated by Howard's injury. His impact on both ends of the floor is so profound that it makes little sense to use season-long numbers on the Magic. If we use the leftover numbers, we're getting into small sample-size territory. Nevertheless, that's what we've done here, focusing on Orlando's numbers over the last 10 games, during which it has gone 4-6. The resulting portrait of this matchup is not especially pretty.
Indiana is what Vogel refers to as a "power-post" team, and the numbers definitely bear that out. Indiana shot the second-lowest percentage on shots at the rim in the league, which is a counter-intuitive result. They also had the lowest percentage of assisted field goals at the rim. This is because the Pacers' offense doesn't involve a lot of cutting or dribble penetration. It's inside-out, with straight post-ups to go with an array of pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops. Nearly 25 percent of the Pacers plays came off post-ups and pick-and-rolls in which the screener ended up with the ball. Only seven percent of their looks came off cuts; most teams are in the 10-11 percent range.
The post-ups might yield a lower field-goal percentage, but there are other benefits. First, they open up the perimeter -- on three-pointers, the Pacers assist rate jumps to 11th in the league because of all the kick-outs and swing passes. Also, Indiana gets to the foul line as well as any team in the league. The Pacers ranked second to Oklahoma City in FT/FGA and achieved its lofty ranking in a very different manner than the basket-attacking Thunder. Indiana got 21 percent of its points from line, more than anyone, even OKC.
Vogel's preference for big lineups plays well with his deep roster of frontcourt players, which has remained strong even after Jeff Foster was forced into retirement because of lingering back issues. The size plays well on the boards, where Indy ranked fifth in offensive rebound percentage and third in second-chance points.
The Pacers' attack is egalitarian, with eight players averaging seven or more shots per game, led by the frontcourt trio of Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert and David West. That's unusual in this era of backcourt-dominant offenses. Hibbert is the key. With Howard absent, his work in the post can really smooth things for the Pacers' attack. But he's got to stay out of foul trouble and Vogel has to figure out how Hibbert is going to function defensively since the Magic won't be using a true center for him to guard. On the season, the Pacers lose 5.6 points of Offensive Rating with Hibbert on the bench. That figure is 8.3 for Granger, who should have no problem staying on the floor as long as his sore knee doesn't give him too much trouble.
Orlando ranked 14th on the defensive end this season after four straight seasons of placing in the top five, and that's with Howard in the lineup for most of the campaign. Over the last 10 games, all without Howard, the Magic's defensive rating has soared to 106.8, which ranks 22nd in the league over that period. The Magic should be able to keep Indiana off the offensive glass, provided Davis is close to full strength. Even without Howard, the Magic have put up the league's best defensive rebounding percentage over the last 10 games.
With Howard out, the Magic have allowed 64 percent shooting in the restricted area, which is 27th in the NBA. That's the bad news. The good news, especially against a good post team like Indiana, is that they yield the fewest shots at the rim in the league, even without Howard. All season, Van Gundy's defense has been stingy with allowing looks on the block, and that's remained true without the former DPOY.
Nevertheless, it's not difficult to see that's going to be Indiana's area of focus: Pound the ball down to the block and work inside-out.
WHEN ORLANDO HAS THE BALL
Pace: 91.2 possessions per 48 minutes (29th NBA)
ORLANDO Offensive Rating: 102.4 points per 100 possessions (14th NBA)
INDIANA Defensive Rating: 100.4 points per 100 possessions (10th NBA)
While Orlando's Defensive Rating has sunk without Howard, the offense has improved a little, ranking 13th over the last 10 games. The Magic remain a slow-paced team, which is a shame because they average the second-most pointer per play on transition opportunities. Nevertheless, Orlando finished 27th in fastbreak points for the season. The Pacers are the sixth-best team at defending transition, so perhaps that is for the best. Besides, with Howard out, can you name a position at which the Magic have an athletic advantage? It's tough, though Ryan Anderson might be more agile than David West.
Howard's injury has hurt Anderson's game more than anybody's. When Howard and Anderson played in tandem, the latter's lifted the Offensive Rating by a whopping 13.4 points when he was on the floor. Over the last 10 games, that effect has been severely diminished; Anderson's offensive plus-minus over the last 10 games has dropped to 2.8 points per 100 possessions.
Instead, the Magic offense has been taken over by Jameer Nelson. He's averaged 15.3 points and more than eight assists down the stretch. Orlando loses 17.5 points of efficiency when he heads to the bench. Unfortunately, Nelson isn't as good defensive as his backups, and the Magic could use the help on that end. While Nelson has taken on a larger role, the scheme has been the same. Orlando still gets fewer points on two-pointers and takes fewer midrange shots than anybody. But with Howard gone, the FT/FGA ranking has from 10th overall to 28th over the last 10 contests.
If Turkoglu can get back to something close to full strength, he'll help. He scored 18 points in his return on Thursday, which is encouraging.
Indiana's defense is similar to the Howard-version of the Orlando defense in that they allow a high percentage on post-ups, but not that many looks. Not that it matters -- Orlando has no one to post up with in this series.
The Pacers rank in the top 10 of the league against both power forwards and centers. The standout is Paul George, a nightmare for opposing perimeter players. The Pacers' Defensive Rating jumps by 5.5 points when he sits, but he's a good enough offensive player that he doesn't have to sit very often. The Pacers aren't a great defensive rebounding team and they can commit a few too many fouls. Unfortunately, those aren't weaknesses liable to be exploited by the Magic.
The Pacers looked like a better team on both ends of the floor before Howard was injured. Now, the gap is that much wider. Orlando's strong group of three-point shooters is likely to heat up enough for at least one game to prevent a sweep, but that's really the upside for the Magic in this series.
INDIANA in 5
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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