Playoff notes: Magic team to beat
The Magic have been dominant during their perfect start to the postseason
Orlando is the complete package: versatile on offense and stingy on defense
More notes: Steve Nash, Suns dismantle Spurs; free-throw misses prove costly
While the Cavaliers and the Celtics take turns grinding on each other's muscles and nerves in their deadlocked second-round series, the Magic are methodically dismantling their playoff foes. Stan Van Gundy's crew won ugly against Charlotte in the first round, with Vince Carter mostly AWOL and Dwight Howard benching himself with heedless fouls. Now Orlando is winning pretty against Atlanta, making more than half its shots in the first three games while holding the Hawks to an average of 81 points.
NBA marketers may have a Kobe-LeBron Finals dancing in their heads, but the team to beat right now -- because nobody has through seven games -- is Orlando.
Maybe the lack of buzz is because the Magic haven't faced a marquee franchise in the first two rounds and have sucked all the drama out of their games through near-total domination. But for a team that is the defending Eastern Conference champions and has won 40 of its last 48 games, including 13 in a row, Orlando is still flying beneath the radar. Many observers would still regard the Magic as underdogs in a matchup against the Cavs or the Lakers. Here are three good reasons they shouldn't be.
A trump card on defense. Howard has led the NBA in blocks and rebounds for the past two years, the obvious reasons he is the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year. But it's the stuff that can't be measured on the individual stat sheet that is perhaps more impressive. Howard has extraordinary quickness and range on his defensive coverage, both in executing his own rotations and covering for his teammates. In other words, not only is he massive and imposing in the paint, like Shaquille O'Neal in his prime, but he's also spidery and stealthy, omnipresent at both ends of the pick-and-roll or closing out on the jump shooter, like Kevin Garnett before the knee surgery.
A rock-solid half-court offensive game plan. With the slower pace and higher intensity of the postseason, a team has to execute its offense in the half-court. The Magic spread defenses by situating Howard in the low block and surrounding him with accurate three-point shooters. Seven Orlando players shot at least 211 treys during the regular season, and their accuracy ranged from 36.7 percent to 40.5 percent. In the playoffs, four Magic are making at least 40 percent. They unselfishly set each other up -- if there were a stat kept for perimeter "hockey" assist, or the pass that led to the assist, the Magic would easily lead the league.
When opponents try to shut down the long game, the Magic dump the ball into Howard, who shot 61.2 percent during the season and is up to 64.8 percent in the playoffs. And while some of the gunners are catch-and-shoot specialists, the likes of Carter and Jameer Nelson can burn you off the dribble.
A blend of experience and hunger. With rare exception, such as the '08 Celtics in the Big Three's first season together, NBA champions have been tempered and forged by near-misses at winning it all in the seasons immediately before their breakthrough. The experience the Magic gained by outlasting the Cavs in a thrilling conference finals last year and then succumbing to the Lakers has clearly whet their collective appetite. There are some new components at the top of the rotation -- a healthy Nelson in place of Rafer Alston or Anthony Johnson, Carter instead of Hedo Turkoglu -- but players like Rashard Lewis, Mickael Pietrus and Howard (against Atlanta anyway) are playing with the confidence and savvy of performers who have already been tested on the big stage. They have experienced just the right amount of success and failure to play with a laser focus and big-picture attitude.
Sure, there are still questions. Can Howard make his free throws and avoid foul trouble? Can Carter rise to the occasion when he's needed? Can Lewis, the "stretch" power forward, win his matchup against his slower but brawnier counterparts? Will Van Gundy's extroverted approach wear as well during times of adversity? But however those get answered, rest assured that the Magic will be a very tough out for any opponent.
There is one other danger: that Orlando's early dominance makes it complacent or otherwise unprepared for the sudden pressure and adversity that accompanies postseason defeats. Remember, only two other playoff teams have matched or eclipsed Orlando's 17.7-point margin of victory in its first seven games -- the Cavs and the Nuggets, both last season. And neither made it to the NBA Finals.
Raise your hand if you thought San Antonio would be the first team eliminated in the conference semifinals. Some observations about the Phoenix sweep ...
The confidence game, part I. Steve Nash delivered a mortal blow to the Spurs' chances by undressing second-year guard George Hill with four layups in a span of 2:14 early in the first quarter of Game 1. Nash's aggression in looking for his own shot ambushed the Spurs, whose scouts had obviously seen the Suns' point guard average four assists in the first quarter alone during the six-game first-round series with Portland. In any case, Hill's teammates were slow to leave their men to help him contain Nash's patented left-handed drives. When Hill was mercifully benched just 5:36 into the game, Nash already had 11 points and Phoenix led 16-7.
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