On Tuesday night, the Orlando Magic returned to the comforts of reality, while the Atlanta Hawks experienced a jarring awakening. The first four games in this series weren’t an accurate representation of the performance of either team, but Game 5 shifted the matchup back toward balance, as Orlando thoroughly dominated both ends of the court en route to a 101-76 victory.
Dwight Howard remains the best player taking the court in this series, but Tuesday’s game was won by the rest of the Magic rotation. They of the underwhelming first four games finally executed on offense up to their capability. Pick-and-roll play won the day, even with Howard serving only as a distraction; Hedo Turkoglu, J.J. Redick, and Jameer Nelson created a ton out of basic screen action, and generated points for themselves and their teammates by exploiting Atlanta’s weak defense. Nine Magic players scored seven or more points, a far cry from the solo act that had previously anchored Orlando’s offense by necessity during this series.
The Hawks will need substantially better defensive coverage if they’re to counter the Magic in Game 6, but there’s only so much that Atlanta can do in their current strategic framework. Covering the pick-and-roll is incredibly difficult without utilizing a third defender, but by electing to stay home on Orlando’s shooters, a two-man defense is all that Atlanta can really employ. The Magic seemed to be in a bind with their inability to involve any of their perimeter players in a fluid offense, but all it took to solve the riddle were a few well-placed screens and smart navigation of interior space. The Hawks hold the 3-2 series lead, but the pressure is on them to respond — and I’m not sure that they can.
The Hawks’ offense wasn’t going to stay afloat forever. Not with Josh Smith’s decision-making, Jamal Crawford’s quick trigger, and Joe Johnson’s willingness to take tough shots to his team’s detriment. Plenty of those difficult looks found the net in the first four games of this series, but Atlanta’s offense was impressive precisely because its success was fleeting. Logic told us that the Hawks shouldn’t be able to consistently create offense with such difficult shots, and that logic was correct. That didn’t stop the shots from falling, but it did suggest that if the series went on long enough, we may start to see a swing in a different direction in Atlanta’s shooting percentages. That swing came in Game 5, and Orlando dominated as a result.
That said, Orlando’s margin for error remains small. Stan Van Gundy can find some peace of mind now that his team’s shots are falling and the open attempts are coming a bit more easily, but the Magic must continue to execute their altered game plan without becoming too reliant on Howard’s post play. Orlando played terrific basketball without even having Howard on the floor in Game 5, and there’s no reason why that can’t develop into a trend over the remainder of the series; the Hawks have no player uniquely capable of punishing the Magic at the rim (the defensive job that Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson have done on Al Horford, the Hawks’ top interior threat, has been unfairly overshadowed by Orlando’s more public failures), and proper defensive execution sans Howard can still take away most of what the Atlanta looks to do on offense.
Still, all it takes is a bit of luck — if, say, Crawford and Johnson can manage to produce on contested jumpers just once more while playing reasonably effective defense — to end Orlando’s season. The Magic are the better team in this series, but that fact would be irrelevant under the weight of a first-round exit, eve one fashioned with pull-up jumpers and poor shot selection.