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.