The 76ers and Magic have had almost mirror-image seasons -- until the end. Philly limped out of the gate and really struggled overall, prompting the firing of their coach. They also got nothing out of their superstar free agent, Elton Brand, and the franchise teetered on disaster. Meanwhile, Orlando has been a top-3 team in the league for most of the season, and survived an injury to star lead guard Jameer Nelson. Philly turned things around under coach Tony DiLeo, going 32-27 under his guidance. But the Sixers lost six straight in April before clinching the No. 6 seed in the final game of the season with a victory in Cleveland (who rested most of their core guys). The Magic had their worst month of the season in April, going 4-5 and losing three straight in the last week.
Orlando's offense versus Philadelphia's defense
Orlando ranks eighth in the NBA in offensive efficiency (107.2 points per 100 possessions), and Philadelphia ranks 20th in defense (104.7 points allowed per 100 possessions).
Orlando runs the classic "4 around 1" and looks to shoot a lot of 3s, forcing teams to defend them outside and leaving Howard in one-on-one coverage. Few defenders can contain him alone. Hedo Turkoglu is a primary playmaker who uses screens to drive and pull up or kick outside to shooters. Lewis is deadly as a pick-and-pop guy, and opposing big men are loath to leave the paint and check him. The Magic are just average in terms of ball protection, and this is what Philly will look to exploit. The Sixers forced 15.6 turnovers a game, third best in the league, and their pressure and athleticism can dictate to Orlando if the Magic's guards allow them to.
Philadelphia's offense versus Orlando's defense
Philadelphia ranks 14th on offense (104.7 points per 100 possessions) and Orlando was the league's best defense (98.9 points allowed in 100 possessions).
The Sixers use the terrific ball skills of Andre Miller to create openings for their athletes, who come off single and staggered screens often. Miller is still terrific in transition, though the Sixers play at the league's 20th fastest pace overall. But when Thaddeus Young and Andre Iguodala get to racing the floor, Miller is adept at finding them, so Orlando's transition defense must be sharp. This should not be an issue, as Orlando rarely crashes the offensive boards (they rank 27th in offensive rebounding), sending two or three players back on most occasions. Miller can post up Magic point guard Rafer Alston and look for a bucket or cutters, but getting Howard out of the paint will be a problem. They have no one to drag him outside, and only Marreese Speights is good enough on offense to keep him occupied.
Miller: Always known as a "pro's pro" and a brilliant passer, Miller continues to defy logic this year as he has put together one of the best seasons of his career at age 33. Although he is not the best player (Iguodala is), Miller is the unquestioned MVP of his team and gives them a chance to win every night because of his ability to be a difference-maker. He's still not much of a shooting threat, but he is dynamic inside off the bounce, pass or board. Orlando defends him better than most thanks to Howard's lurking inside to help alter Miller's shots. Miller shot only 39 percent from the field against them this year, and he needs to make plays (steals, deflections) on defense as well as more shots on offense to help pull the upset.
Alston: Alston has filled in admirably for Jameer Nelson, who many thought was the most important player on the team thanks to his leadership. He's been a consistent performer, stable with the ball and rarely taking chances or bad shots. Alston's also a very underrated defender, which he showed last year in Houston. He's not a consistent 3-point threat, but he made 36 percent from behind the arc in April, his second best month. How he handles Philly's pressure will go a long way toward predicting who wins the series. Orlando can be turnover-prone, which plays into Philly's style.
Green: Green is clearly the weakest starter for Philly and will be forced to make plays as dictated by the rotations of the Magic, who want him to have the ball in his hands more than Miller. He's an average shooter who can get hot in streaks, and his 42.9 percent 3-point shooting in April suggests he may be on one of his better streaks. Green does not handle the ball much, but when he does, he makes easy plays and doesn't turn the ball over much. In his only start against Orlando this season, Green scored 19 points, and although the Sixers lost, it suggests that he may be a X factor for Philly.
Lee: Lee assumed the starting position in 2009 because of his defensive talents and 3-point shooting ability. He plays a tight role most of the time; he takes open 3s and an occasional jumper, is active in the transition game and plays solid but basic defense. He's done it well, shooting over 40 percent from 3 on the season but struggling down the stretch. Lee's 29 percent from 3 in April was by far his worst since November. His finishing ability is solid as well, as he hits 57 percent of his shots inside, and 41 percent of his shots come early in the clock.
Iguodala: Iguodala started the season horribly, which was a large part of why Philly struggled. But he's been on a tear for a while now, scoring over 21 points per game in three of the last four months. Like Miller, Iguodala's poor shooting from the field forces him to get inside, where he's a terrific finisher. Thirteen percent of his shots are dunks -- an impressive number for a guard/wing -- and his athleticism and will to get to the rim are big reasons why. Howard's defense will have an impact on him as well, though, as Iguodala made just 37 percent of his shots against Orlando this year. His activity on defense and the boards could hurt Orlando's rhythm on offense and help launch some breaks for Philly, which needs to find easy ways to score.
Turkoglu: The questions surrounding Turkoglu's health are important because he is a vital part of the team despite not playing well for much of the season. Last year's MIP fell backward this year, shooting 41 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3 (down from 45 and 40, respectively). Still, his ability to take and make tough shots and solid passes when pressured make him an excellent go-to guy in big possessions. Simply put, Orlando was better on offense and defense when Hedo was on the floor. His size and length could definitely give Iguodala problems on both ends, and if he were to find his outside range then Orlando's offense becomes much more lethal. He went 4-for-24 (16.7 percent) from 3 in April, and that was one reason why the Magic struggled.
Young: Injured for all but his last two games of the season, Young scored 38 points in those contests and seems ready for the playoffs. His slashing ability, combined with his size, length and athleticism, make him the best offensive target to counter Howard's presence inside. He never took more than 18 shots in each of the three games against Orlando in the regular season, but his 46 percent shooting from the field in those games begs for more touches. He's faster and quicker than either Rashard Lewis or Hedo Turkoglu. He's also going to be counted on to be a big presence for Philly on defense, an area in which he often shines. He is another Philly player who can help force turnovers and earn his team some run-outs or other easy opportunities.
Lewis: In a span of just two seasons, Lewis has grown from a 3-point specialist and overall scorer to a similar player who also defends well for his position, both on and off the ball. He's a key component of their offensive system, picking and popping wide and dragging his man with him so the lane is more open for Howard or the slashers. As has been the case for most of his teammates, March and April have been down months for him as a shooter, as he has hit just over 35 percent of his 3s in that span. But he's roasted Philly this season, scoring over 20 ppg on 50 percent shooting from 3.
Dalembert: Dalembert did not measure up to preseason expectations, nor did he have a season as good as any of his last six. He did rebound better, with his rebound rate improving from 18.5 to 20.6, but that's about it. His length and ability to patrol the paint do pay some dividends against Howard, who failed to have any crazy 20-20 games against the Sixers. But his limitations on offense hurt his team, and he may not get much time if the Sixers fall behind and need some offensive production.
Howard: "Superman" was anything but super this year against Philly, with 15.7 points and 10 rebounds averaged in three games. No team in the East defended him better. Dalembert is long (so is Ratliff off the bench) and his team is athletic enough to cause the Magic guards problems, keeping them from feeding timely passes inside. And with the games likely being called "looser," Howard's trips to the line (where he led the league in attempts) should lessen. Howard needs to continue to race the floor and fight for important spots, forcing the defense to move down to him and keeping things wide open for teammates. And his beastly efforts inside will help control the defensive lanes if Philly's outside shots are not falling.
Speights: One of the best rookie performers, on a per-minute basis, out of this special rookie class. Just didn't get enough time. Gets 18 percent of his buckets on dunks, and can finish around the rim, too.
Pietrus: Might end up as the X factor if Turkoglu or Lewis cannot go in this series. He's a shooter who takes some ill-advised shots and a slasher who does not finish great, but he's capable of putting up big scoring games.
Reggie Evans: Great nasty inside presence for Philly, but a terrible matchup for Orlando's perimeter players. He is good at keeping possessions alive with tip-outs and is necessary if Philly is struggling to make jump shots.
Lou Williams: Did not continue to grow from last year, but is still a strong scorer off the bench. If Philly is to win some games, Williams likely needs to have some big scoring nights.
Theo Ratliff: Another long and strong body to bring in to bang Howard off his best spots.
Marcin Gortat: One of the most underrated players in the NBA. A banger, shot blocker and inside presence on offense.
JJ Redick: The Magic must make 3-point shots to get their offense flowing, and Redick is another option for his coach if no one else is on.
Anthony Johnson: Solid vet to help steady the team when necessary and get the second unit going. Also a strong outside presence (over 39 percent from 3).
Ironically, beating Cleveland and clinching the sixth seed may have hurt Philly's chances of advancing to Round 2 (especially with Boston more vulnerable without Garnett). They've lost eight of the last nine to Orlando and simply do not match up well with the Magic. The Magic have the luxury of not needing to play their best to get past this team, but building momentum early will help dispirit the Sixers, who still remembers how they made things tough on Detroit last year by stealing Game 1.
Prediction: Orlando in 5
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for Scouts Inc. and the executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for more than 40 NBA, European and D-League players. Those players include Kevin Martin, Rob Kurz, Luol Deng, Courtney Lee and Tyrus Thomas. To e-mail him, click here.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.