By John Carroll, Scouts Inc.
The NBA playoffs are so exciting to watch because they separate the men from the boys. A team can play an 82-game schedule and actually believe that it can contend for an NBA championship. During the regular season, when teams are playing back-to-backs or four games in five nights, you do not get a true read on strengths and weaknesses. However, the playoffs are a different story. In the playoffs, when both teams are working on the same amount of rest, when there is an emphasis on each possession, when preparation is at its highest level, you separate the pretenders from the contenders.
In this series, the Atlanta Hawkshave proven to be pretenders, while the Orlando Magic are without a doubt contenders. It is that simple. I say that not to be negative or mean but to make a point. The Hawks are talented, but they are not yet ready to make the next jump. They are good enough to win 53 regular-season games, but they are being exposed in this series by the more disciplined Magic. The Hawks drastically improved on their Game 1 effort on Thursday night, but they had no answers for the Magic in the fourth quarter and crumbled offensively and defensively in crunch time. Offensively, they dribbled around, wasted time on the shot clock and often tried to go one-on-one on the strong side of the court. That is not going to work against the Magic. Defensively, Atlanta had no answers for Orlando’s pick-and-rolls. The Hawks looked confused and unsure of what they wanted to do. That kind of indecision gets you sent home for the rest of the postseason. And the Hawks are two games away from that happening.
Game 3 Adjustments
The Hawks did a lot of good things in Game 2 and now have a blueprint for how to win Games 3 and 4. They scored, defended and rebounded the ball for 36 minutes. Unfortunately, they could not do any of those things in the last 12 minutes of the game. The Hawks got major contributions from Al Horfordand Jamal Crawford, and scored 83 points over the first three quarters. They got to the free throw line 31 times in the game and rebounded the ball well, especially at the offensive end of the floor, where Josh Smith and Marvin Williams combined for 10 offensive rebounds. But the wheels came off in the fourth quarter. They could not score and they could not stop the Magic -- it was that simple.
Defensively, the Hawks must improve in two areas in order to win Game 3. First they must limit Dwight Howard’s touches when he’s deep in the paint. Second, they must improve their pick-and-roll defense.
The Hawks must not let Howard catch the ball in front of the rim; they must do everything in their power to deny him the ball there. If he catches it on the box the Hawks have a chance. They can dig or double the post and make him work to score. He scored 29 points Thursday night on 8-for-9 shooting from the field. His shots are at point-blank range. Howard, who’s usually a poor free throw shooter, also went 13-for-18 from the line, so fouling him may not be the answer anymore. The answer lies in where he is allowed to catch the ball.
Atlanta’s fourth-quarter pick-and-roll defense was horrendous. It could not figure out what it wanted to give up -- the drive, the shot of the dribbler, or the roll of Howard. The Magic put stress on your pick-and-roll schemes. If you trap the dribbler (either Jameer Nelson or Carter) then the roll man is open. Defensively, you must rotate from another man to take away the roll. This leaves open a perimeter player who could knock down a 3-point shot. The Hawks appeared hesitant to help on the dribbler, and because of that hesitation Nelson and Carter were coming off the pick and getting wide-open jumpers or layups. That is unacceptable. When the Hawks decided to trap the dribbler, they did it without conviction and it opened up the perimeter because they did not rotate quickly and precisely.
Hawks coach Mike Woodson has a hard decision to make with Mike Bibby and Crawford. Bibby has been nonexistent in this series and Crawford has been terrific. Woodson went early to Crawford on Thursday night and Crawford delivered again. Bibby played only 14 minutes, scoring three points and dishing out one assist. Crawford, on the other hand, scored 23 points in 34 minutes. Woodson may have to stop the charade and start Crawford and utilize Bibby as his backup. The Hawks have two games back in Atlanta to get back on track. This is not time to worry about feelings. It is time to put the five guys on the court who help you win.
Josh Smith killed the Hawks in Game 2 with his basketball immaturity -- he just does not get it. Although he scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds, he turned the ball over five times and would just jog back on defense in the second half. This is the playoffs. You cannot be worried about your ego, or the refs, or that you got hit in the face. If you want to win you must run back and play through some adversity. He lets little things bother him and he does not have the maturity to handle it. That gets you beat in the playoffs.
The game plan for the Magic in Game 3 is very simple: improve the defense. They were lucky to win Game 2. They won because they buckled down and played defense in the fourth quarter, limiting the Hawks to only 15 points. They stopped one-on-one penetration, contested all shots, stopped fouling and rebounded the ball. The Magic cannot give up 83 points in the first three quarters and win on the road. They have done a very good job on Joe Johnson in this series, but they must improve their defense of Horford and Crawford. In Game 3, they must not allow the Hawks 16 offensive rebounds.
Offensively, they want to continue to wear the Hawks down with their tremendous ball movement and spacing. They had a balanced offensive attack in Game 2 and simply took what the defense was giving them. Look for more of that in Game 3.
Prediction: Magic win Game 3