After his Orlando Magic lost Game Five to the Boston Celtics in their Eastern Conference semifinal series, Stan Van Gundy had two challenges, only tangentially related to one another. The first was to appease Dwight Howard after Howard complained about his lack of touches in the fifth-game loss. The other was to get Howard going after the All-NBA First Teamer averaged just 16.0 points per game through the first five games of the series with Boston. Van Gundy has managed to find a solution to both problems by utilizing Howard more in the pick-and-roll, and that's the biggest reason Orlando has gone from a game away from elimination to having a chance to reach the NBA Finals with a win in tonight's Game Five of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
While the Magic's model of a big man surrounded by shooters is often compared to how the Houston Rockets used Hakeem Olajuwon during their championship runs, the blueprint for how Orlando has been built up really had more to do with how the Phoenix Suns complemented Amaré Stoudemire. Like Stoudemire, Howard is an amazingly gifted finisher in the paint, making him an ideal fit as the roll man in pick-and-roll plays. The Suns made life easier for Stoudemire by adding talented shooters, meaning that teams were unable to bring in extra defenders to cut off Stoudemire in the paint on his way to the basket. While Howard hasn't had the luxury of two-time MVP Steve Nash running the pick-and-roll and delivering him passes, the shooters have provided him plenty of space to operate and were a big reason Howard slashed his turnover rate while increasing his scoring a year ago.
Somewhere along the way in these playoffs, the Magic got away from using Howard extensively in the pick-and-roll. In part, it was been a less appealing option with the unimaginative Rafer Alston now at point guard in place of injured All-Star Jameer Nelson, and with Hedo Turkoglu battling a nagging ankle injury suffered late in the regular season. Nonetheless, there's no question that getting Howard more involved in the pick-and-roll game has had positive results for both him and the rest of the team.
Breaking down the numbers from Howard's first five games against Boston and his last six games against both the Celtics and Cavaliers shows that his possession usage has scarcely changed on a per-40-minute basis. However, because he is being put in better positions to score, Howard's field-goal percentage is up and his turnovers are down, while he is also getting to the free-throw line more frequently.
Period Pos40 FG% TO40 FTA40
Through G5 18.6 .544 3.1 7.0
Since G5 19.6 .597 2.6 8.8
Making Howard the focal point of the offense has also helped out his teammates. Part of the reason Van Gundy may have been reluctant to run the pick-and-roll extensively early against Boston is because the Celtics, like the Cavaliers, defend pick-and-rolls as well as anyone in the league, taking away Howard's ability to finish at the rim. That means sacrificing somewhere else, either giving up good looks from three-point range on the wings, or allowing the ballhandler an opportunity to drive to the basket.
Turkoglu, running the majority of Orlando's pick-and-rolls, has averaged 8.0 assists over the last six games, setting up his teammates very well. It's no coincidence that the Magic has caught fire from downtown during that span, hitting 42.1 percent from three-point range as compared to 33.5 percent over the first 11 games of the playoffs.
Tuesday's Game Four provided a neat illustration of the tough choices defenses face when Orlando puts Howard in the pick-and-roll. In the early going, Cleveland used single coverage against Howard, and he scored 11 quick points in the first six minutes of the game. The Cavaliers then adjusted to bring in an extra defender and Orlando started rolling up three-pointers. During overtime, after going away from Howard somewhat down the stretch, the Magic made him the focal point again. Cleveland, not wanting to give up a costly three in the extra session, watched Howard score 10 of Orlando's 16 points in overtime.
During Game Four, the bulk of Howard's involvement in the Orlando offense came via the pick-and-roll. The Magic ran this play 56 times over the course of the game, as compared to just 16 times where Howard simply set up in the post and went to work. In overtime, Orlando successfully used the pick-and-roll to set up Howard in the post for two of his scores as well as a trip to the free-throw line. Doing this allowed Howard to get better position then he otherwise would have, a critical distinction because his footwork in the post remains unrefined--there is an enormous difference in Howard's ability to score when he sets up even a foot or two closer to the basket.
Despite its simplicity, the pick-and-roll remains a staple of NBA offenses because, when executed correctly with the right personnel on the floor, it always creates some opportunity to score. With Howard as a finisher and a host of shooters, the Magic has always had the necessary talent. Now, with Van Gundy embracing this tried-and-true play, the pick-and-roll has helped Orlando to the verge of pulling off a shocking upset and reaching the NBA Finals.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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