NBA Playoff Preview: Orlando vs. Atlanta

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SEASON RECORDS
Magic: 52-30 (No. 4 seed)
Hawks: 44-38(No. 5 seed)

SEASON SERIES
Hawks 3-1

KEY INJURIES
Magic: J.J. Redick, missed 16 straight games with an abdomen issue but is expected back for playoffs; Gilbert Arenas’ knees are, well, still Gilbert Arenas’ knees, but more days off in playoffs should help him; Daniel Orton is out for playoffs, but he wasn’t seeing big minutes anyway.
Hawks: Jason Collins missed several games with a sprained ankle, but played a few minutes in season finale and will be a go for this series.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKING (points per 100 possessions)
Magic: Off. 105.7 (10th in NBA); Def. 99.4 (3rd in NBA)
Hawks: Off. 103.7 (20th in NBA); Def. 104.1 (15th in NBA)

THREE KEY MAGIC

Dwight Howard: He’s at the heart of what the Magic do at both ends of the floor — he anchors the defense, he is the post player/pick setter on offense. The Magic offensive plan is simple — let Howard get his, then when the other team doubles start passing out of it and hit threes. That doesn’t work if you can single-cover Howard. He struggled some this season against Jason Collins, but with time to prepare it may be different. Howard has the tools to blow Collins out of the map, the question in how long does it take him to figure it out and start doing it.

Ryan Anderson: Another guy who will be key at both ends — he is going to get a fair amount of time on Al Horford (Howard and Bass also will get time on him). Horford is the best Hawks player this season, he must be slowed. Also, Anderson’s ability to step out and hit threes (hitting 41.1 percent in last 10 games) will pull Atlanta bigs away from the basket, giving Howard and/or Bass more room to grab offensive boards.

Gilbert Arenas: Atlanta should get bench points out of Jamal Crawford. Should. But it will be up Arenas to match that with some points of his own and getting the second unit going. But the real key is for Arneas to do that in the flow of the offense — when he breaks out and starts jacking up shots in isolation the Magic offense will sputter and open the door to the Hawks.

THREE KEY HAWKS

Jason Collins: He is the X-factor in this series. During the regular season he was able to single cover Howard and that allowed the other Hawks defenders to stay home on the Magic’s many shooters. To do it for a total of 93 minutes in four regular season games is one thing, can he keep that up during a seven-game series? If so the Hawks have a chance.

Jamal Crawford: Put simply, Atlanta need scoring off the bench so they need Crawford. They really need last-season’s Crawford, who operated out of isolation sets and simple pin-downs to get him free. This season Larry Drew made the Hawks offense more complex and Crawford has been one of the guys struggling to adjust. They need him now.

Josh Smith: He is not a good jump shooter (39 percent on long twos, taking 4.3 per game), but he takes them anyway and it kills the Hawks offense. If he does that in this series Howard will grab the board and the Magic will be off and running. Also, there are reports he is the locker room malcontent and the Hawks will need everyone on the same page.

OUTLOOK

With Jason Collins, the Hawks think they have some who can single-handedly match up with Howard, and that is why they think they have a chance. But can you really see Dwight Howard getting stopped for long by a Collins twin? Look for the Magic to run some on the Hawks (a bad transition defensive team anyway) and in doing so get Howard some early deep position. And they will try to get fouls on Collins.

The Hawks are basically the same team that the Magic swept out of the playoffs last season. New coach, they have Collins and Hinrich, but things are not that different. The Magic have come back to the pack a little, but they are still a 50-win team with a dominant player.

PREDICTION

It’s not going to be a sweep like a year ago, but it will be pretty close.

Magic in 5.

Rumor: Bulls’ belief in Zach LaVine waning

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Zach LaVine was the centerpiece in the Bulls’ return for trading a star. Chicago was reportedly willing to match a max offer sheet for LaVine in restricted free agency.

But maybe the Bulls have at least somewhat soured on him.

Nick Friedell of ESPN:

I don’t know why the Bulls would be down on LaVine now. I also don’t know why they were so high on him the first place.

LaVine is a good 3-point shooter and impressive dunker. But, despite his athleticism, his all-around contributions are lacking. He also hasn’t looked completely over his February 2017 ACL tear.

This leak could just be strategy. Instead of trying to scare off teams with the threat of matching any offer to LaVine, Chicago could be trying to dissuade suitors by projecting its own reluctance.

The Bulls don’t want to overpay LaVine. But they also don’t want to lose him for nothing.

Will anyone make a hard push for the 23-year-old? He surely wants a lucrative long-term contract, whether he re-signs directly with Chicago or gets an offer sheet. But, if the Bulls aren’t sold on him, I’m not sure any team will is.

LaVine’s qualifying offer will be $4,333,932. That might wind up his next salary.

PBT Extra: Grading the top of the NBA Draft

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The Phoenix Suns got it right at the top of the draft — they took Deandre Ayton.

But what of their move to trade for Mikal Bridges, the No. 10 pick, surrendering a valuable pick and the potential of Zhaire Smith for what should be a solid “3&D” wing to go with their athletic stars?

How did the Kings do at No. 2? What about Dallas’ big trade up to land Luka Doncic at three, or the Atlanta bet on Trae Young?

In this PBT Extra, I grade the top 10 picks in the draft, from the moves I like (I think Dallas did well) to ones I’m not sold on (sorry Chicago).

 

Have questions leading up to free agency? Submit your questions via e-mail for our PBT Mailbag feature. Drop us a line at pbtmailbag@gmail.com.

Lakers’ recruiting pitch for Paul George leaks

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LeBron James doesn’t want elaborate pitches in free agency.

Paul George never said that, though.

So, the Lakers are apparently planning to put some showbiz into their recruitment.

Robin Lundberg of Sports Illustrated, citing a “Hollywood source,” revealed a Lakers pitch for George. The direction:

Less Morgan Freeman/Denzel Washington, and more Jamie Foxx. A bit more edge an attitude to their voice, and a bit less aspirational

The text:

When you were just a kid

In your room
Dreaming from Palmdale

We were dreaming too.

While you dreamt, we built – built for your arrival

And while we dreamt, you built too
Becoming one of the world’s greatest.

Life’s most powerful dream are the one we realize ourselves.

The ones that turn us into legends.
That kid from Palmdale always knew it
Now the world will, too

Who wrote this, noted storyteller Kobe Bryant?

My bigger question: Did or did not the Lakers, who’ve gone to great lengths to make their interest in George known, want this to leak before the official start of free agency?

Report: No divide between Chris Paul and Rockets over contract

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That rumor of tension between Chris Paul and the Rockets over his contract?

Sam Amick of USA Today:

As for the recent report from Fox Sports’ Chris Broussard that there are rising tensions between the two sides because Paul wants the full max and isn’t sure if he’ll get it, two people with knowledge of the situation refuted the idea there is any friction between the sides.

Remember, everyone who leaks something has an agenda. But I find this report far more credible than the initial rumor.

Paul’s max projects to be about $205 million over five years. That’s a lot to commit to a 33-year-old, but Paul took a discount to facilitate an opt-in-and-trade to Houston last year. He expects to be made whole.

Until Broussard’s report, all indications were the Rockets would appease him. Barring more information, that should remain the expectation.