Before the Orlando Magic faced off against the Miami Heat on Oct. 29, the conversation surrounding the matchup centered on Dwight Howard's ability to exploit the Heat's front line. Nearly everyone said, "Who is going to stop him?"
Yet few bothered to ask how the Magic would score on the perimeter against LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, two of the best wing defenders in the NBA.
In the first half of their initial meeting in Miami's regular-season home-opener, Orlando got a lot of production from Howard but little from the likes of Jameer Nelson, Rashard Lewis, Vince Carter and others. Howard was dominant in the first two quarters. He executed to near perfection on the low block and displayed an array of lefty and righty hooks, spin moves and jump shots.
Unfortunately for the Magic, Howard was a one-man show because head coach Erik Spoelstra elected not to double-team the big fella in the low post and instead concentrated on stopping the perimeter attack.
Let Howard get his and stop everyone else on the Magic's roster.
It's a strategy similar to the one the Boston Celtics employed to beat Orlando in the 2010 NBA Eastern Conference Finals. In the Heat's case, Wade shut down Carter while James acted as a rover on defense, using his elite athleticism to make it nearly impossible for Orlando shooters to get clean looks from the perimeter.
The strategy worked, as the Heat were able to pull away from the Magic in the third quarter, thanks to a barrage of shots from James and Wade. The Magic posted their worst offensive night in more than two years, as they fell 96-70 in Miami.
What can Orlando do differently this time around?
They should have two overriding priorities on offense:
The first is to attack -- that's Nelson's job.
He must be aggressive offensively to take advantage of his matchups against Carlos Arroyo and Eddie House. Although the Heat rank fourth in defensive efficiency this season, their defense tends to break down when there is dribble penetration to the interior. That's something Nelson can do with effectiveness -- so long as he's on the attack.
For Orlando, one way to create havoc in the lane is by executing its pick-and-roll with Nelson and Howard. This "1-5 pick-and-roll" facilitates much of Orlando's ball movement in the half court. The play starts, usually, with Nelson at either of the hashes on the wing. From there, Nelson will use Howard's screen to create space for himself to attack the paint and force the defense to react. This is where Orlando is potent offensively, because if he's successful turning the corner, Nelson has a variety of options to choose from. Sometimes he can pull up for a 3-pointer or a midrange jumper, or as has been the case more often this year, Nelson can dash into the lane and put up a leaning fadeaway that he's quietly mastered (ask the New Jersey Nets and Indiana Pacers).
The defense must also account for Howard and the Magic's platoon of 3-point shooters. Howard acting as a moving target on pick-and-rolls is nearly impossible to stop, while players such as Lewis, J.J. Redick and others can provide the requisite perimeter scoring from drive-and-kicks and ball reversals.
As a reference point, Chris Paul and the New Orleans Hornets ran staggered pick-and-rolls, pick-and-pops, you name it, in their win against the Heat. Nelson isn't the same caliber of point guard as Paul, but with the added benefit of Howard there's no reason why he can't do some of the same things in pick-and-roll situations against Miami.
Aside from Nelson -- and by extension, Howard -- Lewis is the second crucial piece to the Magic's offensive game plan.
His involvement offensively is vital because he, along with Nelson and Carter, helps balance Orlando's inside-out attack with Howard in the middle.
What can head coach Stan Van Gundy do to ensure Lewis is used properly?
Against the Heat, it's tricky because Lewis won't be effective playing at the small forward position against James. As such, Lewis needs to spend a majority of his time at power forward, where Bosh won't offer as much resistance.
For Lewis, pick-and-pops are going to be key. The absence of Udonis Haslem puts a ton of pressure on Bosh to contain Lewis defensively, and that's something that Van Gundy needs to exploit. Bosh's pick-and-roll coverage isn't sterling (the same could be said about the rest of the Heat, data via Synergy Sports Technology).
When it comes down to it, the Magic need to run pick-and-rolls as much as possible to beat the Heat in their grudge match Wednesday.
The Hornets created the blueprint with similar personnel.
Orlando needs to follow suit.