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Seven Reasons to Fear the Orlando Magic

10/20/2009

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

I've heard the rap on the Orlando Magic. They're essentially a jump-shooting team. They don't hit the offensive glass, and don't have a go-to guy on the wing who can manufacture points in crunch time. In short, the Magic just don't seem like a championship contender in the eyes of their doubters. How do you gauge what constitutes a contender? As Justice Potter Stewart said of obscenity, you know it when you see it. 

Funny thing is, with the possible exception of a home loss to Dallas nine weeks ago in which Jameer Nelson played his last 19 minutes of the season, every time I see the Magic play, they wallop the opposition.

Arguments that their style doesn't conform to the postseason seem remote while watching them dismantle Western Conference powers on the road, or rip off 13 out of 15 games after their point guard and team leader was lost for the season. It's enough to make you ask, "Exactly what style of basketball are we talking about? A style that translates into the league's second most efficient defense and sixth most efficient offense? A style that wins more than 70% of its games on the road?" 

Amid the noise, we perused the schedule and found that the Magic had tough back-to-back games over the weekend: A Friday night showdown with Cleveland in Orlando, followed up by a road date against a tough home team in Atlanta, where the Hawks were 29-9 going in.  

The results were impressive. The Magic decimated the Cavs, leading by 40 at one juncture in the third quarter. The following night in Atlanta was a bit more of a struggle. Despite the fact that this jump-shooting team missed a slew of open looks, they managed to grind out a win with a heady defensive effort and second-chance points. 

Getting beyond the platitudes, here's what we discovered about the most polarizing, least examined team in basketball:  

Rafer Alston is getting comfortable with the offense.
When Jameer Nelson went down in early February, conventional wisdom loudly proclaimed that the Magic's quixotic first half dash toward the top of the Eastern Conference was over. The acquisition of Rafer Alston was regarded as a crafty maneuver by Otis Smith, but nothing more than a tourniquet for a fatal wound. 

Alston hasn't been able to replicate Nelson's efficiency, but the playground legend has been steady at the point. He's protected the basketball, and has been a quick study in the Orlando offense. In the past month, a noticeable confidence has emerged in his overall game.  

[Friday vs. CLE, 1st Quarter, 9:20 mark] There's a very simple, but effective sequence in opening minutes against the Cavs where Alston and Rashard Lewis run a screen-roll on the left side against Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao. Lewis cuts over from the weak side, bringing Varejao with him. The Cavs trap Alston, who delivers an easy sideline pass to Lewis. Courtney Lee clears to the weak side, giving Delonte West -- the potential rotator -- pause. Lewis hits the 18 footer. This is nothing fancy, but Alston has started to execute this kind of stuff with the fluency of a point guard who knows his teammates' habits, and their on-court biorhythms.

Later in the half [Friday vs. CLE, 2nd Quarter, 1:40 mark], Alston hurries the ball upcourt to Lewis on the right side, intent to push the tempo. Varejao picks up Lewis before he can unleash that signature slingshot three-point stroke, so Lewis puts the ball on the floor, then sends a baseline bounce pass to Lee on the other side. Orlando has gotten very good at keeping defenses off-kilter with reversals and cross-court passes. There are a lot of guys in gold jerseys with their heads on a swivel. Cleveland recovers nicely, so the ball goes back to Alston up top. On the surface, this seems like a reset, but upon further review, you can see that Alston knows exactly what he wants: That preceding madness yielded two mismatches -- Alston/Szczerbiak and Turkoglu/West. What does Alston do? Easy. He exploits the first mismatch by driving against the slower Szczerbiak (Poor Wally. Does a day go by when someone isn't impugning his quicks?), then delivers a pretty interior touch pass to Turkoglu underneath to capitalize on the second mismatch. An easy two, and the Magic now lead by 17, only a minute and a half before the break. 

Alston has always had good instincts, and now he's begun to apply them to what the Magic do on a nightly basis.  

Dwight Howard can and will kick it out of the post...and his shooters will make it easy for him.
Maybe it's the perceived simplicity of Orlando's offense that attracts skeptics (feed it into Howard, surround him with three-point shooters...), but when you watch the Magic closely, the nuances of what they do come to the surface, just as the Spurs' system is more impressive upon a closer examination.  

[Saturday vs. ATL, 4th Quarter, 8:41 mark] This isn't a textbook set with fluid motion and perfect ball movement, which, in some sense, makes it a better case study. In fact, Howard shares the floor with only one other starter, Courtney Lee, along with three bench players -- Anthony Johnson, J.J. Redick, and Tony Battie.  The Magic rotate a couple of pick-and-rolls, the first with Lee and Howard up top on the right side, which doesn't yield much. The second is on the left side with Redick and Battie. Though the Magic don't generate any clean looks here, they've managed to pick up some mismatches against switch-happy Atlanta. Redick sends the ball into Howard in the left post against Josh Smith. Horford, now covering Redick along the arc, moves low to double Howard, which leaves Flip Murray, Joe Johnson, and Maurice Evans to zone up the rest of the floor. Redick darts to the open space to Howard's right, where Howard sends him out a perfect pass out of the post that gets Redick a three-point attempt in rhythm. The Magic go up by nine, their largest lead.

[Saturday vs. ATL, 4th Quarter, 4:30 mark] The prettiest set of this kind comes a little later in the period. The starters are back on the floor for Orlando. The Hawks' bend-don't-break defense is hanging in there, and Lee swings the ball to Turkoglu with :12 on the shot clock. Taking advantage of the action on the far side, Josh Smith waves to Mike Bibby to switch back onto Alston. At :10, Turkoglu dumps it into Howard in the left post against Horford.

A screen shot at this exact moment would display the Orlando Magic in platonic form -- Howard with the ball in the post, his four shooters spread almost symmetrically along the arc. At :08, Lee dives toward the hole. This completely disarms Atlanta. Murray, Lee's man, follows him, but Bibby gets momentarily distracted and shifts his weight and attention toward the cutter, leaving Alston wide open beyond the arc on the right side. Howard takes a step toward the hole and makes his sweeping move as if he's going to elevate for his righty hook. Instead, he kicks the ball out instead to Alston, who drains the three-pointer. Magic by nine with 4:27 to play.  

It might sound weird to classify Orlando's offense as a read-and-react system, but that's essentially what's going on here. Howard is the foundation of the offense, and every player on the Magic roster has honed their instincts to respond to what happens down on the block. Redick intuitively fills the spot on the floor where Howard's kickout can most easily find him, but I doubt it was explicitly dra
wn up that way. When Atlanta doesn't send a double-team, Lee makes a basket cut to see if that will free up a shooter on the perimeter -- and it does.

Dwight Howard's presence makes it hard for opponents to run basic offensive sets.
A high screen from a big man initiates a plurality of offense in the NBA, and it's easy to understand why: Big men can create a lot of space for a dribbler. A defense's job is to fil that space before that dribbler can find a shot, and that's where the Magic -- and specifically, Dwight Howard -- are so strong. 

[Friday vs. CLE, 1st Quarter, 5:58 mark] The Cavs want to use Varejao to get Delonte West some space, which is exactly what Varejao provides with a solid screen at the top of the arc. West moves to the left of the screen. A lot of teams might choose to trap here, but Orlando doesn't have to because Dwight Howard is so long and agile that he can account for the space in front of West and monitor Varejao on the roll. West sends the ball over to a rolling Varejao, but Howard is immediately all over Varejao, who loses the handle. Fortunately for Cleveland, Varejao manages to get it back to West for a reset with :14 on the shot clock. Varejao again sets a solid screen for West -- this time a few feet closer in. West uses the space to drive left, and this time the Magic switch the screen, as Howard drops back into the lane to pick up West on the drive. West is unable to make any progress against Howard, and ends up trying to hit LeBron James in the right corner with a pass that deflects out of bounds. The very next trip down, [1st Quarter, 5:18 mark], the Cavs try the West/Varejao screen/roll one more time to even worse results when the Magic switch. Howard backpedals against West, staying between the little guard and the basket on the left side of the lane.  When West elevates for a layup, the ball is predictably swatted away by Howard.

Howard's reel for Defensive Player of the Year award will consist of gaudy blocks pelted into the fifth row of Amway Arena, but equally important to Orlando's #2 defense is the flexibility Howard affords the Magic against screen and rolls. Howard seems to always be one swipe away from the ball, whether he's picking up a big man on the roll, staying between the ballhandler or the basket on the set, or, more often than not, patrolling the zone in between. His feet are so quick, his arms so long, and his timing so precise that the only way to generate much offense against the Magic is to keep the ball moving around the perimeter, and just hope for an open seam that doesn't end at #12.  

Smart perimeter defenders + Howard behind them = Tough outings for slashers.
For the sake of this exercise, by slasher, we mean "LeBron James." On Friday night, Cleveland goes 9-17 from three-point range, but hits only 22 of 67 shots inside the arc. LeBron James' numbers for the game mirror that closely (he's 7-20 from the field, 2-5 from beyond the arc, along with 10-10 from the line). The Magic use a committee of defenders against James in one-on-one situations. Mickael Pietrus sees the most of James, with Courtney Lee and Hedo Turkoglu picking up possessions as well.  

As is usually the case with defending James, containment is more of a theory than a reality. The task of any perimeter defender on LeBron is funneling him toward help -- and here is where Orlando's defense can manage that task better than most.  

[Friday night vs. CLE, 1st Quarter, 2:19 mark] James holds the ball just above the top of the circle against Mickael Pietrus, who sticks a hand in LeBron's face. James tries to get his defender off-balance with a couple of jab steps, but Pietrus doesn't bite, so James attacks with a hard dribble right. Just as Howard's quickness and reach afford the Magic a lot of flexibility on basic pick-and-roll sets, his attributes as a help defender take a lot of pressure off the adjacent defenders in an iso situation. To James' right, Lee stays home on Sasha Pavlovic because Howard is well-positioned to pick up penetration. Pietrus does a tremendous job on James here, cutting off the lane. Howard doesn't even need to get intimately involved -- though it's clear Howard's presence is a deterrence to James. With James having picked up his dribble and now stuck on the right block being hounded by Pietrus, Pavlovic cuts along the baseline to bail him out. Pavlovic picks up the handoff, but runs into Howard beneath the hoop. The only play is a baseline pass to Wally Szczerbiak in the left corner for a fall-away 25-footer that isn't close.  

In Atlanta, Orlando gives the Hawks' premier scorer, Joe Johnson, fits. He goes 1-5 from the floor in the first half Saturday, earning six of his eight points before halftime from the stripe. [Saturday night vs. ATL, 3rd Quarter, 10:57 mark] On the Hawks' third trip down to start the second half, Johnson is eager to get on track. He brings the ball upcourt against Courtney Lee, then leaves it up top for Horford. A stagger screen for Johnson follows: First, he runs a wing cut around a down screen from Mike Bibby that Lee has no trouble eluding. With Lee still in close pursuit, Johnson collects the handoff from Horford up top, rubbing Lee off Horford in the process. Horford's effort is there, but Lee fights through him valiantly and meets Johnson as he drives into the paint. Lee forces Johnson to change direction, but the instant Johnson goes left, guess who's waiting for him? Howard, Dwight. Johnson has little choice but to step back and try a fade-away jumper off his back leg. It draws the back iron. Turkoglu collects the rebound and races upcourt.  

In Lee, Pietrus, and Turkoglu, Orlando has a platoon of competent wing defenders, each with a varying combination of quickness, length, and smarts, and each made better by Howard on the back line. What Howard essentially does as a basket defender is contract the amount of space that the perimeter defenders have to worry about when confronting a force like James, or Paul Pierce, or Kobe Bryant. The assignment is still difficult, of course, but it's more manageable spatially. Defenders can take a gamble or two with the comfort of knowing that if it's the wrong bet, Dwight Howard is right behind them.  

Hedo Turkoglu is a triple threat.
A 6-10 playmaking small forward with three-point range is a matchup nightmare for any defender, and there are only a handful of guys in the league who have Turkoglu's full range of talents. 

[Friday vs. CLE, 1st Quarter, 6:35 mark]  A bunch of NBA teams have taken to aggressive defensive overloads this season, but here Turkoglu makes the Cavs pay for having all five defenders on the strong side of the court. The action is along the left sideline where Lewis and Courtney Lee run a two-man game, with Howard lingering in close proximity and Alston drifting out toward the perimeter. Turkoglu sets up in the right corner, where Lee, driving to the hole, hits him with a cross-court pass. Mo Williams anticipates the pass. Before the ball is in Turkoglu's hands, Williams has begun to close. Doesn't matter: Once Turkoglu catches the rock, he dekes Williams with a little ball-fake before putting it on the deck and finishing with a reverse layup.

[Saturday vs. ATL, 2nd Quarter, 10:35] Turkoglu also has that Odomian ability to grab an offensive rebound, weave through the transition defense without a beat, and finish with an uncontested lay-
in. Orlando performs well in transition, and Turkoglu is a big part of that.

Turkoglu's size comes into focus against Atlanta, who plays 6-5 Maurice Evans at the 3. Not only does Evans give up five inches, but he's no quicker than Turkoglu at the wing. While the Hawks double Rashard Lewis down on the right block [Saturday vs. ATL, 2nd Quarter, 8:05], Turkoglu bides his time on the left side perimeter, waiting for a kickout. The Magic display that telepathic sense of where each teammate is on the floor at a given moment, and here Lewis makes the long kickout against the frenetic double-team as if it were just obvious that Turkoglu is the open man, which he is. Evans quickly closes, but Turkoglu is too quick off the dribble and breezes past Evans. Turkoglu pulls up at 12 feet and hits.

[Saturday vs. ATL, 2nd Quarter, 6:58] When Turkoglu gets trapped on a screen/roll, deep in the backcourt, he somehow makes a pinpoint perfect pass under duress to a rolling Marcin Gortat. [Saturday vs. ATL, 4th Quarter, 3:26] When Orlando is able to draw a switch off the 1-3 pick and roll, Turkoglu will make the defense pay, which is what he does in the closing minutes in the Magic's win over Atlanta. Turkoglu gets the mismatch with a deft little handoff to Alston on the right side, then takes the return pass from his point guard, steps back, and shoots over the 6-2 Bibby with ease.

Good teams have guys at the small forward who can facilitate, perform multiple tasks in the offense, and D up. Turkoglu might not make any Eastern Conference All-Star teams, but he's a perfect fit in Orlando's system, and ignites their offense. 

Though the Magic don't have to play in transition to win, they push the ball incredibly well.
Orlando ranks 12th in the NBA in pace factor and they mix up the tempo nicely over the course of a game, keeping the defense off-balanced. The Magic's stockpile of sharpshooters means the transition three-pointer presents a threat every trip down. Those four starters outside Howard also have strong handles, which allows Orlando to put its foot on the accelerator when it feels like it.  

[Friday vs. CLE, 1st Quarter, 10:30] The Magic don't waste any time challenging the Cavs in the open court. Off Cleveland's first made basket of the game, Courtney Lee gets ahead of the defense. Alston hits him on the right wing, after which Lee explodes baseline, sealing off the defender. His layup is uncontested. Again, this is off a Cleveland made basket.  

[Friday vs. CLE, 1st Quarter, 2:37 mark] Off a Varejao miss against a strong post stand by Rashard Lewis (who has matured into a decent post defender), Alston rushes the ball up the right side of the floor before the Cavs' normally careful defense can set. Lewis is often Alston's first target along the perimeter on these transition sets, and that's whom Alston goes to in the right corner with the pass. Delonte West has to pick up Lewis because Varejao was busy trying to draw a charge as Howard ambles into the lane to find position on the low block. Without a clean look, Lewis quickly gets the ball back to Alston before the scrambled Cleveland defense can recover. With West still in the right corner, Courtney Lee is wide open along the far side arc. Zydrunas Ilgauskas is the closest defender, but Lee is too far away for an effective close-out. Orlando builds its first five-point lead of the night, and Mike Brown calls timeout. 

Forget about getting any productive isolation sets for your big men down in the post.
Al Horford is still building his post game, but he chooses a tough time to work on his small arsenal of moves against Dwight Howard Saturday night.  

[Saturday vs. ATL, 1st Quarter, 5:15 mark] Horford comes down with an offensive rebound, a rarity against the second-best defensive rebounding team in the NBA. He kicks it out to Maurice Evans out on the perimeter, then reposts, after which Evans feeds him quickly just off the right block. With his back to Howard, Horford dribbles deliberately with his left, not making any discernable progress toward the hole. As Horford collects the ball, spins baseline, and tries to drop, Howard is all up in his space. Horford tries to get some lift for a right-handed hook, but he's tilting at windmills. Howard tips the feeble shot attempts, collects the remains, and Orlando ignites their break. 

[Saturday vs. ATL, 2nd Quarter, 1:22 mark] Horford tries again, this time on the left side at about 15 feet.  He collects the entry pass from Mike Bibby, then faces up against Howard one-on-one. Horford tries to get Howard to bite on a little up-fake, but an incredulous Howard doesn't even consider it, so Horford moves to Plan B: He lowers his left shoulder and with a right-handed dribble tries to drive against Howard. Even though Horford has a pretty good handle for a guy 6-10, he's up against a cinder block wall and can't get himself so much as an inch. Horford chooses to spin away from Howard clockwise and get himself a little separation for a fall-away. The shot doesn't draw iron.

How Good Are the Magic?
Their point differential falls a bit short, but in certain, empirically-driven quarters, they're the numeric favorites to claim the Larry O'Brien Trophy. By casual observation, it's hard not to identify strength upon strength -- perimeter defense, the league's most capable rebounder, shot-blocker, and help defender, versatility at the forward spots that wreaks havoc on opposing defenses, shooters who can find open space and drain shots when they do.

Aesthetes can determine whether all this comprises "a style that can win," and that's the beauty of sports. These questions aren't eternal. The evidence will surface over the next twelve weeks when those most vested in the answers have their say.