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Monday, May 25, 2009
When Orlando Has it Going


Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

Think about all the things you'd want offensively if you were constructing an NBA team from scratch. You'd start with a dominant big man who's unguardable if he catches the ball within seven feet of the basket. You'd surround him with long-range shooters so that he'll always have an outlet if the defense collapses on him. Those ingredients would probably get you to respectability, but let's be greedy for a second. What if both wings and the power forward could act as interchangeable parts in a dizzying pick-and-roll scheme -- each of them capable of handling the ball, making good passes in the halfcourt, and exploiting mismatches both in the post and off the dribble? If you could assemble a team like that, it would look a lot like the 2009 Orlando Magic.

When Orlando plays with an appreciation of their full offensive range, they're a bear to defend. For the first time in the series Sunday night, the Magic establish those assets out of the gate. Their first 10 possessions yield 16 points in 6:04. The sets are well-chosen, almost perfectly executed, and put to rest any fears that the dagger in Cleveland would have a lingering effect in Game 3. We see the complete breadth of the Magic's repertoire -- the deadly shooting, Dwight Howard's presence down low, the forwards' versatility, and the sharp pick-and-roll game.

Here's how it all starts in Game 3: 

Possession #1: Locate the mismatch
The small forward is the fulcrum of any basketball team. Most units feature two big men and two guards with relatively well-defined roles. The 3 man, though, comes in all shapes and sizes, with an elaborate array of skills. If the 3 can play big, the team can play big. If the 3 can shoot from the perimeter, chances are the squad can space the floor. If the 3 can pass the rock, then ball movement will probably be a strength, too.

In this sense, Turkoglu's versatility makes him invaluable to the Magic. Even when he's shooting horribly from the field, as he does in Game 3 (1-11 FGs), he forces the defense to make tough choices (which is how a 1-11 night can translate into a game-high +20). Defend Turkoglu like a traditional 6' 10" forward, and he'll assume ballhandling duties. Assign a smaller defender who can pressure him on the ball, and Turkoglu will exploit that size advantage, which is what he does here with Delonte West. Turkoglu posts up West out on the right wing. He faces up, then takes a quick dribble move toward the baseline to work himself some space to shoot over West. Turkoglu gets a very good look, but it's that kind of night. Still, you can't argue with looking for a mismatch to open the game.

Possession #2: Dwight Howard deep
Dwight Howard will continue to take grief for his rudimentary post game until he establishes a more expansive arsenal. There's every reason to believe we'll see this development over the next few years and it's going to be insanely fun to watch. Until that time, the Magic have one recourse -- get the ball to #12 deep, deep, deep in the paint. The easiest way to do this is in transition, where Howard can use his quickness to beat his man to the restricted circle, which is what he does here off Anderson Varejao's miss on the other end.

Howard barrels his way downcourt. Varejao meets him at the foul line, but Howard has too much forward momentum, and bulldozes Varejao some more before they settle about seven feet from the hoop. There's nothing artful about the play after Turkoglu feeds Howard with the pass. Howard takes an awkward dribble and struggles to bring the ball up to waist level, but he gets hacked and earns a trip to the line where he sinks one of two.

Howard finishes the game a respectable 14 for 19 from the stripe (74%). A more represenatative night from the foul line from Howard would've made for a much more stressful night in Orlando.

Possession #3: Ibid
Transition is one way to get Howard deep position beneath the basket, but pick-and-roll action is another. Alston (guarded by LeBron James) and Howard (guarded by Zydrunas Ilgauskas) run the pick-and-roll at the top of the key. When Howard gets his feet moving coming off the screen, he's able to push Ilgauskas south. Alston kicks the ball up top to Rashard Lewis, which gives Howard another second or two to buy himself even more real estate down low. By the time the pass comes to Howard, he's at the restricted circle. He takes a heavy drop step on the right side, then muscles his way up for a right-handed finish. 

Ilgauskas has always been a strong defender, but if you can turn the halfcourt into a dance floor, he's at a decided disadvantage against a quick opponent like Howard. Cleveland is paying for it, and it's a problem they can't always address with a double-team. 

Possession #4: Four out, one in
The combination of Howard and four cannons on the perimeter allows Orlando to space the floor as well as any team in basketball. The action starts with the Alston-Howard screen-roll. Ilgauskas makes a defensive adjustment this time around. He's not going to screw with Alston. Instead, Z sets himself defensively one step behind the foul line. That's the line of demarcation, and he will not allow Howard to get deeper than that, at least not on this possession.

Alston recognizes the adjustment, so he dishes the ball off to Rashard Lewis at the top of the arc. The ball doesn't stay with Lewis for long, because he keeps it moving left, over to Turkoglu. At this point, Howard is outside the paint at about 15 feet on the left wing, with Ilgauskas behind him. Turkoglu makes the entry pass into Howard, at which point James drops down to help. The instant he does, Howard kicks the ball out to Alston, whom James has left at the top of the arc. 

Three points.

If you're Cleveland, do you take your chances with Howard man-to-man at 15 feet? James arrives even before Howard invades the paint, which might be just a little too aggressive, unless you're certain you can cut off any pass to the perimeter, which is pretty ambitious.

Possession #5: Four out, one in -- transition edition
Off a Cavs' turnover, Howard bypasses the pick and instead beelines directly to the paint. Meanwhile the four Magic shooters fan out along the arc. Alston zips the ball into Howard off the left side of the paint against Varejao. West leaves Turkoglu at the top of the arc to double down on Howard. Rather than kicking the ball out, Howard opts to drive to the rim with his left shoulder and a couple of right-handed dribbles, before elevating for a shot attempt. Varejao commits his second foul, and Howard goes back to the line where he drains one of two.

Possession #6: Nasty drag-screen

As dangerous as LeBron James is with the ball in his hands, he's more lethal when he gets a running start and catches a pass in motion to the hoop with a full head of steam. The same is true for Dwight Howard.

Stan Van Gundy often points out that the Magic function most efficiently in transition, and this sequence is a smart illustration of that. Remember that adjustment Ilgauskas made on the screen-roll to set himself defensively for Howard near the foul line? There's no time for that here because Alston and Howard immediately get into the action while Ilgauskas is still backpedaling. When James gets hung up on Howard's screen up top, Ilgauskas realizes he has to pick up Alston on the left side. Just as Z shifts his weight and attention toward Alston, Howard takes off for the rim. Alston threads the needle with a killer pocket pass across his body between the two defenders. Howard snatches it and, on the finish, almost destroys additional oper
ations equipment.

Possession #7: Sin of commission
Even the Magic's single turnover of the stretch is somewhat excusable. Alston pushes the ball upcourt off the Cleveland miss as the Magic shooters run to their spots. Alston weaves his way through the backpedaling Cleveland defense. As the Cavs' defenders begin to collapse on him, Alston delivers a hard bounce pass to the left sideline which catches Turkoglu just a little off-balance and lands in the front row. A few inches to the left or a nanosecond earlier in the same spot, and Turkoglu has an open look at a three-pointer.

Possession #8: Space for Alston

The Magic goes to another pick-and-roll with Alston and Howard, this time on the right side. Howard lays it on thick against LeBron, giving Alston all kinds of space for a shot. Where's Ilgauskas on the show? Given Howard's activity, Ilgauskas has clearly decided to stay back, willing to yield a jump shot to Alston if it means eliminating (or at least complicating) the possibility of Howard's flying nonstop from the wing to the rim. The gamble doesn't pay off, as Alston drains the long jumper. The only consolation for Cleveland is the low-percentage shot: the dreaded 22-footer.

Possession #9: Reversal
For sheer choreography, this is the prettiest set of the night for Orlando, as all five Magicians touch the ball. They go to their four-out-one-in formation, with Howard getting the entry pass from Altson at the mid-right post. Cleveland immediately sends Ben Wallace on the double-team. When Wallace commits, the four shooters space themselves out exquisitely around the arc against the three remaining Cavs' defenders. Howard kicks the ball out to the one closest to him -- Rafer Alston, who's situated as the last shooter on the right. 

From there, it's artistry, as Orlando stretches the Cleveland defense to the breaking point. Alston has the ball in his possession for maybe half a second before kicking it to Turkoglu, twelve feet to his left. Hot potato, as Turkoglu immediately sends it left to Lee, simliarly spaced. The last stop on the Orlando Perimeter Express is Rashard Lewis, who catches, shoots, and nails the three-point shot.

Master of Panic or Master Mechanic?

Possession #10: Locate the mismatch
The Orlando run finishes how it stars, with the Magic using their forwards' versatility to leverage a mismatch. Courtney Lee (guarded by Mo Williams) and Lewis (guarded by Ben Wallace) run a two-man game on the left side of the floor. Orlando gets the mismatch, and Lee is now facing down Ben Wallace. Lee gets to about 18 feet and has a jumper if he wants it, but he wisely looks around for better options, aware that if he has Wallace on him, that means Lewis has Williams. 

As it turns out, Wiliams was taken out of the play, but Delonte West has picked up Lewis on the rotation. That's the good news for Cleveland. The bad news is that this still represents a mismatch, and Lewis is hungry. Lewis backs West in with left shoulder, spins baseline, then effortlessly launches that slingshot over West that falls through. 

Orlando leads 16-6 midway through the first quarter.

After this efficient start, Orlando spends the next twelve minutes striving for the spectacular, when the operative was working perfectly well. In the third quarter, the Magic reestablishes all that was working in the first six minutes, and they regain control of the game. They also use their quickness and Howard's size to rack up 51 free throw attempts en route to a big Game 3 win. This is to say nothing of their defense, which shuts down almost every mortal facet of the Cavs' offense. If Orlando has a glaring weakness on either side of the ball outside of Dwight Howard's free throw shooting and not having LeBron James under contract, it hasn't been exposed.