Last season, Orlando swept Atlanta right out of the playoffs. Then this summer, both teams essentially went with the status quo.
So maybe we should not be surprised by Monday night’s outcome, a 93-89 Orlando victory. Except that the Hawks were off to a fast start, had a new coach, have been incorporating radical ideals like “off the ball movement” into their offense, so maybe this would be different. Maybe things had changed.
Nope. This game had just about everything the Hawks needed to beat the Magic — no Jameer Nelson, the Magic being cold from three, Atlanta off to a fast start, Vince Carter and Dwight Howard in foul trouble — and it was still the Magic.
The Hawks are still the Hawks — a good team a step or two behind the elite in the East. And pretty much locked in there. And the Magic are still in that elite.
As for this game, the Hawks got off to an early lead because they were getting points in transition. Not that the pace was fast but the Magic were not getting back in transition. As Dwight Howard was yelling at Vince Carter to do. It begs the question of why the Hawks don’t generally try to run more, why they are in the bottom 10 in the league in pace when they have so many athletes on the roster who can finish a break. But we’ve been asking that question for years.
As expected the pace ground down and Orlando caught up.
One big thing that was different from last playoffs — Atlanta chose not to double Howard on the block. They went with a lot of Jason Collins (who starts) and Zaza Pachulia (who should start and get more minutes than Collins because neither is all that great defensively but at least Pachulia can score a little). Howard finished with 27 on 50 percent shooting and 11 boards — an increase in points and rebounds over his season average, but down in shooting percentage.
But that one-on-one post play allowed the other Hawks to stay home on Magic three pointers, and the result was the Magic shot 18.2 percent from deep.
In a close game late, the Hawks are still the Hawks — a lot of Joe Johnson either coming off picks or in isolation. They have more movement in the offense, but under pressure they reverted to bad habits. The Magic are still the Magic — a lot of pick-and-roll, although with Nelson out it was a lot of Carter/Howard pick-and-roll.
Same as it ever was with the Hawks defending the pick-and-roll — they love to switch it. The Larry Drew Hawks may not switch everything as they used to, but they switch a lot. Late in the game that led to trouble — Josh Smith had already switched on to Vince Carter, so when Howard came out to set up the pick Orlando had a bunch of matchups they liked. Carter had the ball and now Al Horford on him and did what he should with that matchup and attacked off the high pick, got the bucket-and-one. That meant with15.5 second and Orlando’s two point lead became… well four points because he missed the free throw, but it became a two possession game and that was it.
This early in the season is too early to read anything into April and May in the NBA. But this game felt like last playoffs, when the Magic were just wholly superior to the Hawks. It’s hard to see how anything is really different now.