Author: Rob Mahoney

Orlando Magic v Atlanta Hawks - Game Four

NBA Playoffs: Atlanta takes Game 4, Orlando is still searching

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We’re well past a mere first round scare or claims of an “upset alert.” With an 88-85 win in Game 4, the Atlanta Hawks have pushed the fourth-seeded Orlando Magic to the very edge of their playoff lives, a considerable achievement considering the regular season profiles of both teams. The Magic were the league’s fourth best team this season according to efficiency differential (per, while the Hawks were merely the 18th best. Atlanta flashed all of the flaws that their ranking would suggest on Sunday night, but it didn’t matter — the Hawks’ Game 4 performance was enough to secure a crucial victory.

The Hawks honestly tried their damnedest to lose this game. They turned the ball over on 15.4 percent of their possessions. Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford tried to lock out the rest of their teammates on offense. Josh Smith pulled himself up by the net to chase a blocked shot, which resulted in an automatic goaltending violation — just one of his many head-scratching plays. With 28 seconds remaining in the game and holding just a three-point advantage, Crawford hijacked control of the ball and forced his team into a shot clock violation. One could go on and on with Atlanta’s blunders, but none of it would mean a damn thing; the Hawks made all of those mistakes and then some, and still pulled within a single victory of the second round.

In Game 4, the shot creation issues that have plagued the Magic throughout the entire series were exacerbated by a complete inability among Orlando’s players (save Dwight Howard and Gilbert Arenas) to connect on even their uncontested shot attempts. Jason Richardson’s absence hurt, if only because it’s hard to imagine that he would have played worse than Hedo Turkoglu (six points, 2-12 FG) or J.J. Redick (two points, 0-6 FG). Gilbert Arenas came back from the dead to contribute 20 points (on 18 shots) to complement Dwight Howard’s 29 points and 17 rebounds, but the rest of the Magic shot an atrocious 27.7 percent from the field, and a frankly amazing 1-of-20 from three-point range. Orlando isn’t an elite offensive team by any means, but they’re sinking lower and lower into the doldrums with every game. It’s widely known that Howard is the only standout defensive player on the roster, but he may be the only standout offensive player, too.

The Magic aren’t quite hopeless, but they haven’t yet demonstrated the ability to win this series. The defense has been up to par, but scoring at a rate of 93.4 points per 100 possessions (Orlando’s woeful offensive efficiency in Game 4) isn’t going to cut it. Unfortunately, Orlando doesn’t have many readily accessible avenues to efficient scoring. Jason Richardson is a genuine help, but he hasn’t established a game-changing precedent in this year’s playoffs; Richardson has largely been interchangeable with his ineffective perimeter-oriented teammates.

So where, really can Orlando turn for more offensive production? Arenas’ Game 4 outburst was nice for the Magic, but depending on Gil is a mistake given his disappointing play this season. Nelson and Turkoglu have proven completely inadequate as Howard sidekicks. Redick and Ryan Anderson can’t capitalize on their opportunities. Brandon Bass has been decent (relatively speaking), but can’t generate the scoring output that Orlando needs. Stan Van Gundy is undoubtedly kept up late at night pondering the best ways to maximize this roster’s offensive potential, but there’s no easy cure for his insomnia. The Magic defense has been there (and held the Hawks to 96.7 points per 100 possessions in Game 4), but no Magic player except for Dwight Howard could — or can — score with any consistency. Orlando’s collective fate isn’t yet sealed, but it may as well be; the skill sets of Orlando’s players aren’t likely to change between now and Game 5, which leaves precious few possibilities for the Magic’s revival.

NBA Playoffs: OKC takes Game 2 as Denver’s depth disappears

Al Harrington, J.R. Smith, Nene
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Game 1 of the series between the Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder stood out as a highly entertaining contest in an opening weekend full of highly entertaining contests, but the reprise in Game 2 couldn’t quite measure up as a competitive spectacle. Blame the Thunder; OKC used a dominant first quarter as a catalyst for spectacular game-long performance, and endured Denver’s runs along the way to win 106-89.

However, the most interesting dynamic in Game 2 may have been the complete inversion of both teams’ offensive identities. Structurally, the Oklahoma City Thunder are as traditional as contenders come. They have two dynamic stars at their core, surrounded by a defensive specialist on the wing, an enforcer in the middle and an x-factor. They have some depth, but generally run about eight deep.

The Nuggets are a bit of a different beast. They rely on having a stable of versatile and capable contributors to overwhelm and outrun their opponents. Denver relies on a collective offensive effectiveness and an aggressive defensive philosophy, neither of which is exactly possible without contributions from one to eight (or sometimes nine or 10).

Yet in Game 2, it was the Thunder who benefited from a balanced attack while the Nuggets struggled to find competence among their regulars. Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, and James Harden scored a combined 40 points for OKC, providing a huge boost to the typically star-centric outfit. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were still productive, but they were able to rely on the efficient production of their supporting cast and pick their spots to be aggressive.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets were forced to lean heavily on Al Harrington, as only Ty Lawson, Nene, and Raymond Felton were otherwise able to contribute reliably. To be fair, Harrington played relatively well, but his sudden opportunity was more a testament to the failures of his teammates than any particularly outstanding element of his performance. Kenyon Martin didn’t make much of an impact on either end of the court. Danilo Gallinari couldn’t consistently create scoring opportunities. Wilson Chandler forced shots (and didn’t make a single one), all while putting in subpar defensive effort. J.R. Smith was effectively banished from the rotation after seven early minutes of play. Between widespread struggles and the absence of Arron Afflalo, Denver was surprisingly short-handed against an opponent playing excellent team basketball. Things went about as poorly as one would expect.

OKC looked like the best in the West on Wednesday and Denver something decidedly less than. The problem with the Nuggets doesn’t lie in their formula, but in their execution. Denver isn’t incapable of winning against quality opponents, but the odds are certainly stacked against them when they struggle this mightily on both ends of the court. The Nuggets just needed something more: scoring from the wings, stronger rebounding, better team defense overall, or even a superlative individual performance from one of many candidates. None of the above came, and the Thunder looked dominant as a result.

Denver’s defense and depth can typically throw opponents off-guard enough to allow some wiggle room, but Oklahoma City was simply clicking on another level on Wednesday, one on which a struggling Thunder team had no way of competing. Give OKC’s defense (and offense, for that matter) the appropriate credit, just don’t invoke the name of Carmelo Anthony; the Nuggets didn’t experience problems because they didn’t have a star player, but merely due to the fact that the typically effective players on their roster didn’t perform as they’re capable of performing.

NBA Playoffs: Magic defense edges out Hawks in Game 2

Atlanta Hawks v Orlando Magic - Game Two
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The Orlando Magic still haven’t figured out how to get consistent offensive production out of their perimeter players, but they made one drastic improvement from Game 1 to Game 2: the Magic defense is now in full effect. Atlanta played a competitive game by putting up a strong defensive front of their own and hitting some tough shots along the way, but top-notch production from Dwight Howard and the return of Orlando’s elite defense were enough to seal the win, 88-82.

The structure of the Hawks’ offense isn’t the soundest — any team that relies too heavily on contested jumpers is destined for some hiccups — but the onus was still on the Magic to impact to enforce their will on that end of the court. The common rhetoric states that Orlando’s defense “starts with Dwight Howard,” but that particular phrasing couldn’t be further from the truth. Howard is the finisher. He contests almost every shot in the paint, and collects defensive rebounds at an amazing rate. The Magic defense starts with the efficacy of perimeter defenders; when Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson, J.J. Redick, and Hedo Turkoglu are scrambling to rotate and cover the open man, Dwight Howard is better positioned to defend the rim and alter shots. Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson deserve credit as well for their work in rotation, as Orlando unleashed a team-wide defensive effort to limit Atlanta to 93.2 points per 100 possessions.

This is closer to the potent D the Magic boasted during the regular season, and could be the key to besting opponents who employ a strategy of defending Dwight Howard one-on-one — as the Hawks have done in this series thus far. Howard again piled up the turnovers, but his seven giveaways were eclipsed by hyper-efficient shooting (9-of-12 from the field, and a fantastic 15-of-19 from the line) and incredible production (33 points, 19 rebounds, eight offensive boards). Jason Collins and Zaza Pachulia deserve credit for their defensive effort against Howard, but clearly their efforts weren’t enough to seriously curtail Howard’s output.

Howard aside, the Magic shot just 27.3 percent from the field. That’s horrific, and Atlanta’s team defense deserves a lot of the credit. Yet Orlando still managed to take their first win of the series, in no small part due to the Magic’s terrific offensive rebounding, a failure of a different kind for Atlanta’s team D. In addition to Howard’s eight rebounds on the offensive end, Bass and Anderson combined to grab eight of their own, pushing Orlando’s offensive rebounding rate up to a game-saving 43.5 percent.

The Hawks provide a very different story; Atlanta shot a superior (relative to Orlando’s miserable marks) but still subpar 39.5 percent overall, but even a nice defensive performance couldn’t secure a win in Game 2. Even with a fine showing the Hawks’ defense isn’t quite potent enough to win in spite of their offense in this context, just as their offense would so rarely win in spite of their defense; Atlanta has to be on their game on both sides of the ball to be more than merely competitive against Orlando, and that just wasn’t the case tonight. Jamal Crawford (25 points, 8-17 FG) had it going and Josh Smith (17 points, 8-14 FG, six rebounds) provided some nice supplementary scoring, but otherwise the Hawks’ offense just couldn’t get much of a spark. They did a great job of weathering runs with periodic bursts, but Joe Johnson was too inefficient and Al Horford too unproductive. I’m not sure either of those problems are easily remedied, either; most of Johnson’s problems were issues of shot selection that have plagued him for years, and Horford’s opportunities were limited by Orlando’s scrambling. Larry Drew will have his work cut out for him in jump-starting the Hawks’ offense to acceptable levels, but he’s been faced with the same inefficiency all season and has made little progress on that front. Atlanta ranked 20th in offensive efficiency in the regular season, and one shouldn’t expect that standing to change overnight just because the postseason is in swing.

The Hawks are right there. They were perhaps within a handful of offensive rebounds of taking a 2-0 series lead in spite of all of their weaknesses, and they’re competitive enough that the Magic can take nothing for granted. Defensive might must be proven and maintained on a game-by-game basis. Howard must continue to be aggressive, and do his best to slash those turnovers. Orlando’s shooters have to keep working to get open, even as their quality attempts become fewer and fewer. Otherwise, Atlanta has the potential to make this series far too long and far too interesting for Stan Van Gundy’s liking, exponentially increasing their likelihood of taking the series with each win along the way.

Buckle up — there’s still a lot of basketball to be played.

NBA Playoffs: Grizzlies win the day, but is their success sustainable?

Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Darrell Arthur
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The Memphis Grizzlies did it. They made big play after big play down the stretch on Sunday afternoon, and secured a 1-0 series lead against the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs, not to mention scored their first playoff win in franchise history. The victory was a tremendous achievement on several levels, and yet even the Grizzlies’ day in the sun seems fleeting; Game 2 will likely mark the return of Manu Ginobili, and though Memphis is still equipped to compete, a Ginobili-infused Spurs team presents an entirely new kind of challenge. The poor, hungry Grizzlies faithful and underdog bandwagoners alike should cherish this moment while they can, because we’re in for a fundamentally different matchup once Ginobili takes the court.

Case in point: the Spurs’ dreadfully poor shooting. San Antonio posted an effective field goal percentage of just 44.3 percent, and while Ginobili’s typically efficient scoring alone would boost that number, his very presence should also bring less direct shooting gains. Ginobili’s drives demand the full attention of opposing defenses, which should grant the Spurs’ sharpshooters even more open opportunities. Plus, Ginobili is a deadly enough shooter in his own right that his presence on the perimeter prevents opponents from cheating off of him to help against Tony Parker or Tim Duncan.

Yet above all, the most compelling reason for San Antonio to bounce back on offense is the lofty anchor of the Spurs’ season-long averages. San Antonio posted a higher effective field goal percentage than any team in the NBA this season, while the Grizzlies defense ranked 18th in effective field goal percentage allowed. This isn’t some perfect cocktail of defensive factors to cripple one of the league’s top offenses, but merely a momentary hiccup in the Spurs’ otherwise stellar offensive performance. They’ll climb back because the players, the coach, and the system involved are just that good, and when they do, the Grizz could be in a bit of trouble.

Yet Memphis has their own unique advantages on the front line, as the combination of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph proved too big and too productive for Tim Duncan’s big man counterparts. DeJuan Blair, Antonio McDyess, and Matt Bonner all struggled defensively, and Gasol and Randolph — who scored a combined 49 points on 19-of-25 shooting shooting while grabbing 23 total rebounds — had a field day. The problems with those three aren’t exactly based in execution, either; Blair, McDyess, and Bonner could all stand to play better, but their biggest weaknesses stem from their lack of size, lack of mobility, and lack of overall athleticism, respectively. Those aren’t elements that are going to change between Games 1 and 2, and the brilliant efficiency of Randolph and Gasol should endure so long as the Grizzly big men are committed to exploiting mismatches.

Beyond Gasol and Randolph, Memphis benefited from a solid performance by Mike Conley, O.J. Mayo balancing his poor decision making with three-point marksmanship, timely scoring by Shane Battier, an impressive team defensive front against Tony Parker, and the occasional moments of Tony Allen heroism. It was a total performance championed by two of the Grizzlies’ finest, but a similar showing in the games to come unfortunately may not be enough. If the Grizz are to steal any more games from the Spurs after Ginobili’s return, they’ll have to be even better. The fouling — though mostly due to an overly anxious officiating crew in Game 1 — will have to be reined in. The shooting from all over the floor must remain pristine, and Memphis’ supplementary scorers will have to become even more efficient. It took quite a bit going right for the Grizz to steal Game 1, but this was the game they stood the greatest chance of winning. Now comes the real test, and Memphis’ chance to really throw a wrench into this series’ works.

Good work so far, Grizzlies. Now let’s see what you’ve got.

NBA Playoffs: Dwight’s one-man show comes up short against Hawks

Screen shot 2011-04-16 at 11.21.47 PM

One couldn’t possibly expect, ask, or demand more of Dwight Howard than the Magic center gave in Game 1, and yet the Atlanta Hawks were somehow still able to take an early series lead with an efficient opening salvo. Atlanta is clearly equipped to compete in this series, and though they took a brutal 46-point, 19-rebound performance from Howard, the limitations of the other Magic players on both ends of the court allowed the Hawks to take Game 1, 103-93.

It might be a bit generous to say that Atlanta’s Jason Collins allows the Hawks to defend Howard one-on-one in the post; Collins wasn’t much of a difference-maker, as Howard went above, through, and around both Collins and anyone else tasked with defending him. However, the fact that Collins is on the roster allows Hawks head coach Larry Drew to make a defensive commitment to Orlando’s peripheral players. The fact that Howard can’t single-handedly beat the Hawks isn’t an indictment of his offensive game, but simply a statement about the dynamics of basketball. Howard will need help from more than one of his teammates (Jameer Nelson, thanks to a truly fantastic third quarter, finished with 27 points and six rebounds) if the Magic are to win this series, but the limitations of Orlando’s roster are as glaring as ever.

Nelson has the ability to create shots for himself — as he showcased on Saturday — but the rest of the Magic are largely reliant on others to produce points for them. Howard kicking the ball out of double teams is typically one such avenue for shot creation, but if the Hawks are committed to shackling Orlando’s perimeter players, then the Magic offense will be similarly restricted. Nelson simply doesn’t have the playmaking ability to orchestrate a traditional offense (and before you even start, Hedo Turkoglu doesn’t, either), and without an additional source of shot creation, Orlando’s offensive potential is a bit limited.

When faced with the full attention of Atlanta’s perimeter defenders, Orlando’s standstill shooters made just 27.3 percent of their three-pointers. Jason Richardson scored four points on 2-of-8 shooting. Ryan Anderson and Brandon Bass were held scoreless on six combined field goal attempts. The aforementioned Turkoglu shot 2-of-9 from the field. Each is a solid offensive player in their own right, but simply lacking in that ever-important ability to consistently generate quality shot attempts against defensive pressure.

Consider the Magic’s counterparts: the Hawks had five double-digit scorers, all of whom shot 50 percent or better from the field. That’s not exactly the type of team-wide performance we should expect from Atlanta for the duration the series, but at the very least the Hawks have more players capable of functioning as self-sustaining sources of offense than the Magic do. That doesn’t guarantee that the Hawks will be able to keep their offense afloat against what’s sure to be a motivated Magic team teched for revenge in Game 2, but it was enough to keep Orlando at arm’s length down the stretch and secure a crucial Game 1 victory.

As persuasive as Atlanta’s case was in Game 1, this performance was a statistical aberration of sorts; one shouldn’t expect the Hawks to be quite so efficient from the field going forward (42.9 percent from three-point range is an awesome — and ultimately unsustainable — mark), and odds are that the Magic defense will bounce back with a vengeance, even if their lack of shot creation will continue to be a problem. Still, the potential for the rumored upset is certainly present, even as Dwight Howard piles up points, hedges effectively on every screen, and secures every rebound in a 10-foot radius. This series could stand as an exercise in the limits of superstardom, as even a game-changing force like Howard is left a spectator to the shortcomings of his own teammates.