By John Carroll, Scouts Inc.
The Orlando Magic have flown under the radar a bit this season. Everyone is talking about the Lakers and the Cavaliers, but the Magic have just gone on about their business and earned both the No. 2 seed and home-court advantage for at least the first two rounds.
But Orlando could have its hands full with the seventh-seeded Charlotte Bobcats, who are making their first playoff appearance in franchise history.
Although the Magic’s calling card is defense, their abundance of weapons make it a terrific offensive team and a matchup problem for most defenses. Dwight Howard, already one of the best centers in the league coming into the season, has improved his offensive repertoire in the low post and is an imposing physical specimen with length, strength and power. Around him, the Magic have a plethora of shooters who can knock down the 3-point shot and make teams pay if they decide to double team Howard.
Point guard Jameer Nelson is also adept at creating shots both for himself and others. He’s also the leader of the team, and when he plays at a high level so do the Magic.
The addition of Vince Carter to the Magic roster gives them a veteran go-to player who can get 30 points on any given night in the playoffs and create one-on-one opportunities for himself and others. In the playoffs, where there are no bad teams and the defense intensifies in each series, Carter’s ability to score via one-on-one situations becomes invaluable. If he mixes hard attacks to the rim with his jump shot, he will provide the Magic with a terrific perimeter option.
Still, the Bobcats are no slouches.
Larry Brown is a master at taking NBA teams, revamping their roster, bringing in veterans that know how to play and maximizing their talent. And he has done it again in Charlotte.
The mantra for this team if defense, defense, defense. The Bobcats are one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. They are in the top six in three of the most important defensive categories: The Bobcats finished the regular season first in points allowed per game (93.8), sixth in field-goal percentage defense (44.7 percent) and second in 3-point field-goal percentage defense (33.8 percent). Charlotte also limits opponents’ ability to score in the paint, they do not foul or put opponents on the line and they are very good converting turnovers into scores at the other end.
Defensively, the Bobcats are an aggressive unit. They will contest passes, disrupt opponents and not let them run their offense. They are a well-drilled defensive team and have size and length at all of the positions except point guard. They have multiple centers in Theo Ratliff, Tyson Chandler and Nazr Mohammed who can defend, rebound and block shots.
Offensively, Charlotte plays a traditional NBA style, one that is very conducive to the playoffs. They know how to post and take advantage of Iso mismatches, run pick-and-rolls and attack the paint to find openings in the defense. Stephen Jackson is the Bobcats’ go-to player, and they will post him, Iso him, put him in pick-and-rolls and bring him off screens for catch-and-shoot opportunities.
Look for Brown and his Bobcats to make life hard on the Orlando Magic in the first round of the playoffs.
Point guard matchups
Felton has had a very good season for the Charlotte Bobcats, averaging 12.2 points and 5.6 assists per game. He has provided the Bobcats with a point guard who can run a team, distribute and score. Although a bit undersized for an NBA point guard, the 6-foot-1, 198-pound Felton has taken to Larry Brown’s tutelage and blossomed.
Felton is a very good pick-and-roll player who knows how to run them and what to look for coming off a screen. He is a deadly shooter coming off the pick-and-roll and puts a lot of pressure on the defense. Occasionally, Brown will play D.J. Augustin and Felton together in the backcourt and Felton can help off the ball. He is quick, strong and works hard defensively, but this is where is lack of size does hurt him occasionally.
The Magic got to last year’s NBA Finals without their starting point guard. But even with Nelson, Orlando was not able to knock off the Lakers in the finals. Now, they’ll get their second crack at it.
Nelson may not be the best player on the Magic roster but he may be the most important.
When he is in the lineup and playing at a high level the Magic are tough to beat. Nelson is a facilitator who takes care of the ball and sets up his teammates. However, he is a natural scorer, and when needed he can provide them with a one-on-one/pick-and-roll offensive option. Nelson is a veteran leader, and although his numbers are down a bit this season, he will be a one of the big reasons if his team is still playing in June.
Shooting guard matchup
Larry Brown has been the perfect answer for Jackson’s career. Brown knows Jackson’s talents and skills and he utilizes the two-guard in many ways. Jack is the go-to scorer for the Bobcats and a fearless player with tremendous confidence in his skills. The Bobcats will need him to step up his game and get them tough buckets in the playoffs.
Jackson has been a willing defender, and he has the length and athleticism to defend top-notch perimeter players. Jackson is the type of player that can carry a team on his back in the fourth quarter. If he can do that in the first round, things could get interesting.
The Magic acquired Vince Carter in the off-season to fill the void left by the departure of Hedo Turkoglu. Although Carter and Turkoglu are different types of players, the Magic desperately needed to fill that scoring void.
Despite a bounce back after the new year, Carter’s numbers are down a bit this season. But his proving ground will be in the playoffs. His reputation is that he is not tough and that he has never been about winning, but he can change that perception in the upcoming playoffs.
Carter is one of the best one-on-one isolation players in the NBA, so he needs to be an aggressive offensive player, one who takes the ball to the rim in one-on-one Isos and pick-and-rolls. He can knock down tough shots with a hand in his face or rip the ball by his opponent and take it to the rim.
The Magic will utilize some high pick-and-rolls for Carter to get open looks, and he needs to mix in drives to the hoop instead of always settling for contested jumpshots. If he can give the Magic a glimpse of the young Vince Carter, the one who was fearless driving the ball to the rim and elevating over opponents, the Magic will have a great chance of making it back to the NBA Finals.
Small forward matchup
The word that comes to mind when I think about Wallace is, “Energy!” The eight-year vet is basically the Energizer Bunny: He keeps coming and coming, and never stops. He is a terrific player in the open court, running the floor, filling lanes and finishing at the rim. The Bobcats will also utilize Wallace in the halfcourt with post-ups and Iso’s against mismatches.
Wallace is a tough player to defend because he gets a lot of his offense via movement. He will cut and move off the ball and find openings in the defense for easy scores. If a defender does not have contact with Wallace and does not box him out on missed shots, he can be a terror on the offensive glass, averaging two of his 10.1 rebounds per game on offense in the regular season. Opponents must have a body on him at all times.
Wallace is a very good defender. He is a high-level athlete, with tremendous athleticism and length. He can guard opponents’ best perimeter player and cause havoc defensively with his length and anticipation.
Barnes is the ultimate role player for the Magic, a glue guy who does a little bit of everything for this team. An athletic wing player who plays with a lot of energy, he can defend, rebound, pass, handle and shoot.
The six-year veteran has had to earn his way into the NBA, but it’s also what makes him such a good fit for this team. Picked up in the offseason from Phoenix, Barnes’ versatility and motor are great assets for the Magic. Barnes runs the floor hard, gets out on the break and can finish. He is a slasher who can drive the ball to the basket and finish, but he can also help space the floor for Carter and Howard and knock down the open shot.
Barnes is especially valuable on defense, where the tough wing player can defend opponents’ best perimeter player. He will make his opponent work hard to catch the ball where he wants it and then challenge him to make tough shots. Barnes is also an active rebounder who will come back and rebound the ball.
Power forward matchup
Boris Diaw is a perfect example of the new power forward in the NBA. He is not the low-post banger who plays with his back to the basket. He is a very skilled forward who can handle, pass and shoot. He is a terrific passer and facilitator from the big forward position, and he can create shots for himself or others. He has improved his range on his jumpshot to make opponents close out to him on pick-and-pop and drive-and-kick situations.
Still, Diaw is not a big-time athlete: He lacks foot speed and is an OK defender. One of his weaknesses is that he often plays with low energy during the regular season. He will need to bring much more and have a higher motor during a seven-game playoff series in order to help the Bobcats.
Rashard Lewis is a versatile forward who defines the term “stretch 4.” His ability to shoot the 3-point shot brings his opponent away from the bucket and gives Howard more room to operate inside and Carter the ability to drive to the rim. Lewis is a tough matchup.
Opponents must guard him with a forward that is mobile enough to keep up with him on the perimeter but also big and strong enough to deal with him in post-up situations. If the Magic see that he has a height advantage they will go to him in direct post-ups just off the box.
Larry Brown has utilized three centers during the regular season but seems to have settled in with Theo Ratliff because he brings a veteran presence that Brown is comfortable with. Ratliff is solid, has good size and length and the poise necessary for playoff basketball.
Ratliff has always been a good defender, a willing rebounder and a shot-blocker. Theo’s offensive game is still rudimentary. The Bobcats do not try to throw the ball into him in the low post. Rather, they use him as a pick-and-roll guy, a screener and a garbage guy around the basket. Ratliff will not be able to guard Howard in the low post one-on-one and the Bobcats will be forced to bring help and double team the post.
Dwight Howard has worked hard to make himself a better player every season he has been in the NBA. He is a physical specimen who has been an impact player since his arrival in the league. However, in the playoffs versus the better defensive centers and teams, Howard has been criticized for his predictable and mechanical game.
Basketball is a game of feel, and Howard appeared to lack the key ingredient. However, this season, with the help of assistant coach Patrick Ewing, Dwight appears to have developed a more solid low-post repertoire and is displaying more patience against opponents double teams. It is important for him to be able to react, make strong definitive moves in the post and finish at the rim
Howard has also worked hard at his free-throw shooting, an extremely important key to the Magic’s success. He gets to the line 10 times per game, and in the fourth quarter of playoff games, he must be able to knock down big free throws.
Howard has been a dominant defender and rebounder since his arrival in the league, and because of his inside presence, the Magic are one of the top defensive teams in the NBA. He clogs the middle, does not let the ball get to the rim and cleans the glass when the shots go up.
These two guys will be keys to the Bobcats’ hopes of winning in the playoffs because they will provide Brown with relief for Ratliff. There is no way Ratliff can guard Howard in the low post one-on-one. Howard is too strong and physical for each of the Bobcats’ centers. Look for Brown to utilize all three centers, and use 18 fouls among them if necessary.
They cannot allow Howard to catch, drop step and dunk. They must hard foul him when needed and make him hit free throws. If Howard gets deep post position on any of these guys it will be over. Neither Chandler nor Mohammed are offensive weapons. They are similar to Ratliff in that they will set picks and screens and play off of those actions.
Gortat may be the most important player for the Magic during the playoffs because of the impact of Howard on each and every game. Howard has a tendency to pick up fouls and get into foul problems at times, and Gortat is the Magic’s answer when Howard goes to the bench. The Magic need Howard fresh and out of foul trouble in the fourth quarter and Gortat is the insurance policy. He is a versatile athlete who has size and strength. Gortat can really run the floor and move his feet for a big man. He is a smart basketball player and an excellent team defender. He is a very cerebral big man who helps the Magic execute offensively with his ability to pass, set screens and pick and rolls. The Magic paid Gortat handsomely for his services, and it is obvious why. With Howard and Gortat they have a lot of answers at the center position.
Prediction: Magic in six