NBA Season Preview: Orlando Magic

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Thumbnail image for Jnelson_Dhoward.jpgLast season: 59-23, the second seed in the East. In the playoffs they Magic swept past the Bobcats and Hawks before running into the buzz saw that was the Celtics and losing in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Head Coach: Stan Van Gundy, one of the best going and probably funnier than his brother.

Key Departures: Matt Barnes, which will not be a big loss unless the Magic have to face him and the Lakers in the finals, and he comes with a chip on his shoulder.

Key Additions: The biggest move was bringing back JJ Redick, matching and offer from the Chicago Bulls. Redick is a great fit within the Magic system and the perfect counterweight on the days that Vince Carter goes Toronto Vince on the team.

Chris Duhon comes in as the primary backup for Jameer Nelson and is much better fit here than he was in the Mike D’Antoni system in New York. Duhon is a solid defender and hit 36.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes last season. It’s a good role for him.

Quentin Richardson replaces Barnes and is a better fit in this system — he is a fantastic spot-up shooter. More than half his shots came that way last season and he scored an impressive 1.15 points per shot attempt, and shot 42 percent from three. Van Gundy is going to love him.

Best case scenario: NBA champions. They are in the elite tier of the NBA, it’s only a matter of beating out the others also there — Miami, Boston and the Lakers. Oh, just that….

For that to happen: Orlando has to be better than last year — and last season they have the best regular season point differential in the league — and better than a couple years ago. The Lakers have gotten better, Boston has gotten better, the Heat will be the Heat. There is no easy path to the ring.

Specifically, the Magic need to be better on offense. The defense will again be at or near the top of the league. And last season the Magic were near the top of the league if offensive efficiency (depends on the way you measure it, Basketball-Reference has them fourth, Hoopdata second). But it didn’t feel consistent.

Dwight Howard shot 61.2 percent last year, an insanely high number, but he saw his touches in the offense go down (two fewer shots per game than the season before). Meanwhile, more shots went to an inconsistent core around him of Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis. None of them were bad, but there were nights when the Magic offense just didn’t fire.

Howard again has to be the focus of the offense, and he spent the summer working with Hakeem Olajuwon to round out his game. Howard takes unfair criticism for not having a jumpshot, but he remains a very efficient scorer. He does have moves around the rim, and the ones he has he knocks down the shot.

Simply put, the Magic is Howard’s show. There will be nights Carter or Nelson can win the game, but the Magic offense has been more efficient when Howard gets touches. He needs more of them.

More likely the Magic will: Be right in the thick of things, but is that enough to get out of the East? Or past the Lakers? A lot will depend on health — of the Magic and other the other top teams — and seedings. Boston could blow off the end of the regular season again to get healthy, and if so the team that can avoid playing them the longest has the easier path.

The Magic may have the best roster to beat the Heat. Miami is insanely good at the two, three and four — if you beat them it will be by exploiting them at the point guard and center spots. I can see a playoff series where the Magic will run the Nelson/Howard pick-and-roll every time down, daring Bosh to help off Rashard Lewis or Wade off Redick. (Matt Barnes used to be the guy you helped off of, do that now and Richardson makes you pay.) Maybe the Heat can adjust, maybe they can just overwhelm, but don’t think they can just roll the Magic. That would be a great series.

The Magic did not make many roster changes, nor should they have (unless an amazing opportunity fell in their lap). They went to the finals two seasons ago. The second half of last season they were the best team in basketball, up until they ran into the playoff buzz saw that was the Celtics. This team is good, this team is on the edge of winning it all. You don’t mess with that much.

They Magic will be one of the best regular season teams in the league, no doubt. The question is will they hone their game enough during the season to take the next step in the playoffs

Prediction: 59 wins, again which will get them the two seed again (the Heat may be vulnerable in the playoffs, but they will be regular season beasts). Then Orlando’s real work starts.

Warriors eliminate Spurs, advance to face Pelicans

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Kevin Durant drained a pull-up 3-pointer reminiscent of his signature NBA Finals shot in the final minute of the third quarter. The Spurs ended the quarter with a flurry and kept coming.

Durant made consecutive mid-range jumpers over Kyle Anderson midway through the fourth quarter. The Spurs called timeout, subbed  Rudy Gay for Anderson and kept coming.

Durant drove past Gay and dunked. The Spurs called another timeout and kept coming.

Each of those Durant shots seemed as if they could be the backbreaker. Credit San Antonio for continuing to play hard.

But without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs were just overmatched against the superstar small forward in the Warriors’ 4-1 first-round victory – which ended with Golden State’s 99-91 Game 5 win Tuesday.

The Warriors’ next opponent – the Pelicans, who open their second-round series Saturday – could soon learn the feeling.

New Orleans relies on E'Twaun Moore, Darius Miller and Solomon Hill at small forward – not the slate of stoppers that seems ready for Durant. Even on an off night (1-for-8 on 3-pointers, five turnovers), Durant scored 25 in Game 5. He’s a tough cover. But those three Pelicans – Moore (size), Miller (fundamentals) and Hill (speed) – each have major defensive liabilities Durant can exploit.

And Durant will have plenty of help.

Klay Thompson (24 points) appears headed back on track after a clunker in Game 4. Draymond Green (17 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists) looks locked in.

And, of course, Stephen Curry is poised to return sometime against the Pelicans.

The Warriors weren’t very impressive in the San Antonio series. Nor did they need to be. The Spurs were just overmatched, unable to summon nearly enough offense.

But Golden State showed enough focus and reminders of its talent to retain favored status even against better opponents – like New Orleans, which swept the Trail Blazers. Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday lead a surging team.

The Spurs want to get back on that level, and that stars with solving the Leonard dilemma this summer.

Will they offer him a super-max extension? Would he take it? Will they trade him? Will he request a trade?

With questions like that facing San Antonio, by comparison, the Pelicans are stable at small forward.

How do you like “The Process” now? Sixers eliminate Heat, advance to second round

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It felt inevitable.

Not “The Process” from the start. There were some severe downs before the ups.

Not this first playoff series against Miami from the start, because it felt even… until Game 3 when Joel Embiid returned in his mask and tipped the scales.

No, it was Game 5’s result felt inevitable as it unfolded. Not because Philadelphia won the previous game in Miami and could close it out at home. Not because the Sixers have the two biggest talents in the series in Ben Simmons and Embiid.

Rather, Game 5 felt inevitable because the Sixers got better looks all night long. They got them with ball movement, with player movement that created mismatches or clean jumpers. It was tied 46-46 at the half because Philadelphia just missing its good looks while the Heat were struggling with hands in their face all night. Philadelphia shot 38.1 percent in the first half overall and were 2-of-12 from three.

In the third quarter, it all changed.

Philadelphia went on an early 9-0 run, shot 50 percent as a team for the quarter, all while continuing to play defense and get stops. The Sixers won the third 34-20 and held on through Miami rallies in the fourth to take the game comfortably, 104-91.

With the win, Philadelphia wins the series 4-1 and advances to the second round, where they will face either Boston or Milwaukee (Boston leads the series 3-2).

They did it behind 27 from J.J. Redick, who knocked down five threes. Embiid had 19 points and 12 rebounds, Simmons had 14 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. However, it was the defense that held the Miami to 38.6 percent shooting overall and 16-of-31 from three within eight feet of the basket that won the game for Philly.

This young Sixers team learned lessons in this first round, and maybe the biggest was how to adapt the physicality of the playoffs, and keeping your cool while things don’t go your way.

“I thought we withstood the physicality of the Heat,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “They’re a great organization. They came to mean it, we knew they wouldn’t go away easily, and we had to have that physical element to match.”

They matched that physicality, but what they had was talent that could step up.

They also savored the moment. Midway through the fourth, up comfortably and still knocking down shots, the young Sixers were reveling in the deafening crowd in the Wells Fargo Center. Philadelphia was reveling in success after years of struggling through the process — the players and fans wanted to start that party midway through the fourth.

However, Heat have no chill and no quit in them, they went on a 10-0 in the fourth quarter, not-so-coincidentally after Sixers fans started chanting, “We want Boston!”

But when it mattered the Heat couldn’t get stops — the Sixers talent showed through. Redick hit threes. Embiid owned the paint. Simmons did a little bit of everything.

It was a moment of revelry in Philadelphia. One years in the making — and maybe the first in many years of future celebrations on that court.

Sixers players douse Brett Brown, present him with bell after closing Heat (VIDEO)

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The Philadelphia 76ers are moving on. Let’s just try to process that for a moment.

After beating the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, 104-91, this iteration of the Sixers experienced their first playoff series win together. It was also the first series win for coach Brett Brown as the man in charge of an NBA team.

As such, players gathered in the locker room after the win to hear Brown speak about the win, and about how the team had more to give and to learn as they moved forward together in the playoffs.

When Brown concluded his speech, he tried to hand off the victory bell to JJ Redick. As soon as Redick received it, he bestowed the honor of the bell right back upon Brown.

That’s when teammates showered Brown with whatever they had nearby, and Brown rung the bell.

Man, what a moment.

Marcus Smart returns, helps Celtics win Game 5 over Bucks

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Marcus Smart returned to the Boston Celtics after suffering a thumb injury earlier in the year, and boy was it just in time.

The Celtics guard came off the bench, doing what he does best: attacking opposing guards, grabbing rebounds, and making hustle plays for his squad. Smart thoroughly annoyed the Milwaukee Bucks, and as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to make a push in the second half (and as Khris Middleton‘s shooting slowly deteriorated) it was Boston who came out with a win in Game 5, 92-87.

Milwaukee’s offense failed to show up early. According to NBA TV, it was the second-lowest halftime total for the Bucks this season, and the away team scored just 37 points at the break. Milwaukee struggled mightily as a team, shooting just 21 percent from 3-point range. Despite the issues, both Antetokounmpo and Middleton had 11 points by half.

Boston’s attack was balanced, with nine players scoring in the first half but none reaching double figures. Smart was effective off the bench, playing 12 minutes in the first half. Smart’s presence was felt elsewhere on the floor as well; in those minutes he racked up two blocks, two rebounds, and two assists.

The Celtics stalled to start the third quarter, at times going several minutes between baskets. The intensity level was still high, particularly during one tussle with 9:33 left in the third. Eric Bledsoe and Terry Rozier got into a bumping match on the baseline away from the ball, resulting in one player getting pushed into an official. Bledsoe earned a Flagrant 1 for his efforts, and Rozier was assessed a technical.

Milwaukee began to battle back on surprising baskets by Shabazz Muhammad. The former Minnesota Timberwolves wing dropped two 3-pointers to help the Bucks make a run at the Celtics all the way into the fourth quarter.

The critical play of the game came with 80 seconds left. With the shot clock winding down, Al Horford was allowed by officials to shoot a long jumper. The refereeing crew didn’t blow the whistle, and Boston took a second possession after a backtip.

Then, with 28 seconds left as the Bucks were trying to steal or foul the Celtics, came the play Boston fans had been waiting for from Smart. At first it appeared Milwaukee had shot at a turnover as they hustled Smart to the floor on a trap. Thinking quickly, Smart leapt on the lost ball, flipped over, and sent a pass to a wide open Horford for the basket, all but sealing the game.

Milwaukee tried to play the foul game in the final minute or so, but weren’t able to come up with a win. Antetokounmpo finished with just 16 points and Middleton with 23. Horford led the Celtics with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and three assists.

Boston now leads the series, 3-2, as they head back to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Thursday.