Monday, April 11, 2011

NBA Playoff Preview, Round 1: #4 Orlando Magic-#5 Atlanta Hawks

Will Superman lead the Magic to the second round?
As the playoffs get closer, we're going to be predicting--or at least previewing--some of the most interesting matchups.  Our apologies to the cities of Chicago and Indianapolis, but we're not going to be previewing the lopsided Bulls-Pacers series.  You want my prediction?  Bulls win.  How many games?  Not many.  Now, moving on to a series that will actually be competitive, we're going to start by spotlighting the eventual matchup of the Atlanta Hawks and the Orlando Magic.  Though this first round series isn't 100% set yet, it would take Knicks wins over the Bulls and Celtics, coupled with two Hawks losses, for any other scenario to occur.  Barring that near-impossibility, the Hawks and the Magic will meet sometime over the weekend in Orlando to start their best-of-seven series.  Who will win and move on to face the top-seeded Bulls?  Hit the jump to find out.

First, let's take a look back at the season series between the Hawks and the Magic and see what we can learn from that.

11/8: Atlanta @ Orlando--Magic win 93-89
12/6: Atlanta @ Orlando--Hawks win 80-74
**Jameer Nelson DNP--Illness
12/20: Orlando @ Atlanta--Hawks win 91-81
3/30: Orlando @ Atlanta--Hawks win 85-82

So, the Hawks took the season series from the Magic 3-1, but only one of those games occurred in 2011, and it was decided by only three points.  There is definitely history this season between the two teams, but none of it is particularly recent.  In addition, in one of the Hawks' victories, Magic point guard Jameer Nelson was out with a stomach virus, and coach Stan Van Gundy had to play backup Chris Duhon for 33 minutes.  Also, since the Magic significantly overhauled their team the day before the December 20th game versus Atlanta, I'm not sure how much this history tells us about the upcoming series between the Magic and the Hawks.  However, we can't completely ignore the head-to-head experience (especially the March 30th game), so...
Head-to-head: slight edge to Atlanta

Looking at both teams' recent performance, the Magic have a clear advantage over the Hawks.  Dwight Howard's squad has outplayed Atlanta by six games in the loss column since the All-Star break, despite the Hawks' victory over the Magic on March 30th.  The Hawks are also in the midst of a four-game losing streak, and they play the Miami Heat--winners of eight of their last 10--tonight.  The Magic, by contrast, have won eight of their last 12 games, despite missing Dwight Howard, Quentin Richardson,
Ryan Anderson has proven that 
he can fill in for Superman.
Jameer Nelson, and Chris Duhon at various times during that stretch.  Even without Howard, the Magic only lost by three to the top-seeded Bulls yesterday afternoon, while the Hawks got routed by 32 in Washington.  Despite the injuries plaguing the Magic in recent weeks, Howard was out yesterday due to a league suspension, and he should be good to go for the playoffs.  Howard's recent absences, though, have allowed third-year center Ryan Anderson (see right) to really step up.  He has a PER of 18.4 this year, and he's averaging a career-high 8.7 boards while pouring in 17 points per game off the bench.  In the game yesterday, Anderson filled in more than capably for Superman, with 28 points, 10 rebounds (seven offensive) and a block in 35 minutes.  With Anderson coming on strong and Howard returning from a suspension just in time for the playoffs, the Magic are hot at the right time. 
Recent performance: large edge to Orlando

Though recent performance should carry more weight, looking at each team's performance over the entire season is still important.  What immediately jumps out when comparing the two teams is their individual point differentials.  Through 80 games this season, the Magic have a +5.3 point differential, while the Hawks are -0.6 on the season.  This means that, since the Hawks are above .500, their losses come by much more than their wins, on average.  This is a double-edged sword for the Atlanta faithful.  While the Hawks generally have success in close games, they are prone to blowouts and games in which they are uncompetitive.  The Magic, on the other hand,tend to win their games by a comfortable margin throughout.  This is a result of their remarkable efficiency on both ends of the court.  Orlando is tenth in offensive efficiency and third in defensive efficiency, according to ESPN's John Hollinger.  The Hawks, by contrast, are 21st in offensive efficiency and 14th on the defensive end.  This means that, in a random sample of 100 possessions, the Hawks will score fewer points and allow more points than the Magic.  This discrepancy is incredibly significant in a best-of-seven playoff series, in which fluky games and buzzer-beating shots cannot win the whole thing for one team.  Long-term averages mean more in a seven-game series than in a one-game series, and that works to the advantage of the Orlando Magic.
Season performance: edge to Orlando

Can Joe Johnson live up to the
max-contract he signed this offseason?
The last component of predicting the results of such a close playoff series is to look at each squad's playoff experience and see if any team has a clear advantage on the intangibles.  Magic coach Stan Van Gundy has coached 76 playoff games in his career, including taking Orlando to the NBA Finals only two years ago.  He has a career .592 winning percentage in the playoffs, and the Magic swept the first two rounds of the playoffs last year only to lose to Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals.  Though much of the Magic team was replaced by trades this season, Dwight Howard still remains from the four previous playoff runs, and he averages 14.2 boards/game in the postseason.  Despite the wholesale roster changes lately, the two main pieces--Howard and Van Gundy--have a wealth of playoff experience together.  By contrast, the Hawks enter the matchup with a first-year head coach, Larry Drew.  He has been successful this regular season, leading the Hawks to a 44-36 record thus far; he was also an assistant coach for the Hawks during their recent playoff runs, so he is no stranger to the Hawks' early exits in recent years.  Atlanta never made it past the second round of the playoffs while Drew was an assistant coach, and they were bounced in the first round in 2008.  It would be an oversimplification to say that Drew is totally inexperienced, but his experience does pale in comparison to Van Gundy's.  However, unlike the Magic, much of the Hawks roster has remained intact in recent years.  Josh Smith and Joe Johnson (see above) have both been in Atlanta for six years, and Al Horford is in his fourth year for the Hawks.  These three crucial cogs have played together for years, including in the playoffs, and they will not struggle from chemistry issues that have plagued the Magic somewhat since overhauling their roster.
Playoff experience: Tie--Atlanta wins chemistry, Orlando wins coaching

Just like you would expect from any match-up between the fourth and fifth seeds, this turned out to be close.  The teams tied on playoff experience, and the Hawks had a slight edge in head-to-head history.  However, the Magic have the edge in recent and season-long performance, outplaying the Hawks by six games since the All-Star Break.  Therefore, on the strength of their better record and efficient performances...
Verdict: Magic over Hawks in 6 games

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