A knowledgeable NBA fan could have predicted in the preseason that the Pacers and the Magic might finish as the third and sixth seeds in the Eastern Conference, respectively. What many would have failed to predict is that the Pacers would be the host to the Magic in the first round of the Playoffs. Currently, there may not be two more divergent teams in the entire NBA playoff field. The Indiana Pacers on one hand, have exceeded the expectations of most analysts, and have a vapid fan base more consumed with off-season football melodrama than on the court execellence. While the Orlando Magic have come apart at the seams as a franchise, polarized by a season long soap opera most noted for the roller coaster trade-winds surrounding Dwight Howard.
Indiana finished 42-24 in this compacted 66 game season, with five more wins than all of last season, quietly demonstrating the tremendous growth of a ball club ready to contend. Last season’s grueling five game series against the top seeded Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs laid the foundation for the success the team has experienced this year. They return to the playoff stage a deeper, more efficient, and better defensive team than a year ago, with six players averaging double figures, and a tenth overall ranked scoring defense. In a normal 82 game NBA season, the Pacers were on pace to win 52 games, eight more wins than in any of the previous seven seasons, and their best since a franchise record 61 in 2003-2004.
The current state of the Orlando Magic franchise is not one that coincides with the fun-filled, exciting ethos of the city’s famed Walt Disney Resort. There is no question though, this season has been filled with mickey-mouse antics, from rumored deals to the Lakers, Nets, and Mavericks for soon to be free agent franchise center Dwight Howard, to unscripted tell all interviews by embattled coach Stan Van Gundy about his impending firing. Further sowing the seeds of this season of discontent, Dwight Howard has been sidelined with a season ending back injury that significantly curtails the chances of the Magic to advance past the first round for the first time since the 2006-2007 playoffs. The Magic won the season series against the Pacers 3-1, in part because of their scoring defense (93.4), none of which matters now without the 3-time defending Defensive Player of the Year.
The front court size of Indiana will be of greater importance in these playoffs without Dwight Howard on the floor. That is the obvious. Indiana is one of the biggest teams in the league with significant length in the post and on the wings. But, the difference in just how well this oiled machine runs will depend on the point guard play of George Hill, Darren Collison and Leandro Barbosa. Collison and Hill have been the starters, with Hill taking over the starting job in the last month of the season. Indiana has gone 7-2 in that span, facing the Sixers as their only playoff foe, with whom they split two games. Hill figures to log the most minutes going forward, but Collison and Barbosa will play significant roles off the bench, depending on the game tempo and matchup. Another key factor in the Pacers chances of moving to the next round could be the play of Paul George. On good nights, George can do a lot of things well, from rebounding to attacking the rim with ferocity. His shooting percentage has generally been better against the Magic, and without Howard clogging up the middle, put backs and drives to the bucket may come a little bit easier for the second year guard.
Built around their franchise center, the Magic offense is predicated on spacing for open perimeter shots. Third year forward Ryan Anderson had his best season yet, leading the league with 166 three pointers, and is in strong consideration for the Most Improved Player award. JJ Redick has also stepped up his game in the absence of injured Hedo Turkoglu, scoring 14.5 points a game, while shooting 45% from behind the arc in 22 starts. While the open looks may be more difficult to come by, especially when you factor in the opportunistic defense of the Pacers (15 forced turnovers a game), Orlando is still capable of moving the ball quickly enough to get good shots. Anderson and Redick will both have to do a better job of creating their own shots in this series if they hope to make up for the scoring loss of Howard. Glen “Big Baby” Davis will also play a pivotal role for Orlando, as their lone inside presence without Howard. More than anything else, the question regarding Davis will his ability to handle the increased minutes against a physical and deeper Indiana frontcourt unit.
Pacers in six. Well, I wondered how many times I would mention Dwight Howard despite the fact that he isn’t playing. Doing so as many times as I have, underscores his value to the Orlando Magic franchise, and ultimately their chances at winning this series. Having led his team in scoring, rebounding, steals and blocks this season, there is no question that his presence, or lack thereof will be the ultimate deciding factor. Indiana will almost certainly attempt to attack Orlando in the paint behind aggressive play from Roy Hibbert, David West and Tyler Hansborough. They should ultimately be successful in doing so, as the Pacers perimeter players will also have less fear of penetration into the middle of the paint for easy layups and dish offs. The leading scorer for the Pacers, Danny Granger has gotten his game together after struggling in the early season. Look for his play to also elevate in this series, especially in clutch situations.
The Orlando Magic should have a glimpse or two of success and past glory against an Indiana team with less playoff experience in this series. Assuming that the aforementioned shooters Anderson and Redick are able to get open consistently, and Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson and Turkoglu are able to use their experience to drive the lane and kick the ball out successfully. Unfortunately a lethal combination of front office turmoil and the loss of their franchise player to injury, the Magic have been given little chance to win this series. Stan Van Gundy will have to rely on every bit of coaching knowledge and game plan trickery that he can muster just to keep this series competitive. That will be a very tall order for such a short turnaround.