Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NBA Playoffs 2009 [Print without images]

Thursday, April 16, 2009
PER Diem: April 22, 2009

By John Hollinger
ESPN.com

Dwight Howard
Pounding the ball inside with Dwight Howard can help keep Orlando from falling to 0-2.

The NBA has always been about stars, especially in the playoffs. But tonight, three of the league's biggest stars find their teams in serious trouble. Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul were no-brainer picks for three of the top five spots on virtually everyone's MVP ballot, but each enters Game 2 in a near must-win situation with his team down 1-0.

While comebacks from 2-0 deficits have happened, they're pretty rare: In best-of-seven series, only 14 teams have come back from 2-0 deficits in NBA history. And, in Orlando's case, only three of them have done so after dropping the first two at home. So if we're going to see any of these three superstars in action come May, they probably need to leave the floor with a win tonight.

To review, Howard's Orlando team was victimized by a huge comeback from 18 down by the Sixers on Sunday, while Paul's Hornets and Wade's Heat were blown off the floor (113-84 and 90-64, respectively). In each case the outcome was a surprise. New Orleans and Miami were expected to be competitive with Denver and Atlanta, while the lightly regarded Sixers weren't supposed to be a threat to the Magic.

In light of the weekend's developments, and in keeping with our theme of threes, here's a closer look at three things each of those three teams can do to earn a much-needed win Wednesday night:


Heat vs. Hawks

1. Speed it up: One recurring theme in Erik Spoelstra's postgame news conference Sunday was how slowly his team was playing, both physically and mentally. The Heat took forever to get into their sets, rarely ran and were beaten to nearly every loose ball by Atlanta.

Miami played fairly up-tempo in the regular season, and needs to rediscover that energy to get some easy transition baskets in Game 2. That would be a partial remedy for its difficulties in the half court, where the Hawks bottled up Miami in Game 1, and the same energy would help the Heat win some of those loose-ball scrums and stop fighting the shot clock at the end of possessions.

2. Wake up the big men: Miami got shockingly little from Jermaine O'Neal in the opener (five points, two boards), and Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony didn't do a whole lot more. Meanwhile, Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia dominated on the glass, and Josh Smith broke loose for a series of highlight-film dunks.

O'Neal in particular has a spotlight on him after the Heat traded Shawn Marion to Toronto for him and Jamario Moon. The veteran center is playing on bad knees, but still needs to show more pep than he did Sunday. It would be particularly helpful if he could put some fouls on the shorter Horford (or anyone else, for that matter) and force the eight-deep Hawks to go into their bench early. At halftime Sunday, no Atlanta player had more than one foul.

3. Get more from Wade: We can talk about the lame supporting cast all we want, but the fact is that the Heat aren't going to win if Wade can't produce more than 19 points and eight turnovers. Atlanta collapsed in the paint and forced him to shoot a lot of jumpers, including six 3-pointers, but it's not as if the Hawks are the first team to employ this strategy.

Somehow, Wade needs to find openings and driving angles that can get him to the rim and allow him cleaner looks away from Smith's shot-blocking. Certainly, getting his teammates to knock down some J's would help -- the Heat were 4-of-23 on 3-pointers on Sunday -- but that might be putting the cart before the horse. The 3-point looks will get significantly easier if Wade is making his forays to the basket more frequently.



Hornets vs. Nuggets

1. Change up on Chauncey: Chauncey Billups shot the lights out Sunday, making 8 of 9 3-pointers en route to a 113-84 blowout win by the Nuggets. Hornets coach Byron Scott said one adjustment he'll make is to pick up Billups at half court rather than the 3-point line. On several 3s, he simply dribbled up the court and launched right into his shot a step beyond the arc. Scott's other maneuver will be putting Paul on Billups instead of Rasual Butler, who defended Mr. Big Shot for most of Game 1.

The 6-foot-7 Butler was playing a step off Billups out of respect for his quickness advantage, whereas Paul won't have to. The risk, obviously, is that the 6-3 Billups takes Paul into the post, where he scored on a turnaround during the brief span when Paul defended him in Game 1. Additionally, the assignment might limit some of the ball-hawking Paul can do from the help side, which is normally where he thrives.

2. Get West on the move: Improving the defense is the first order of business, but the Hornets also have to figure out how to get more from David West. While Paul was his usual fantastic self in Game 1, his fellow two-time All-Star shot 4-for-16 while the harassing defense of Kenyon Martin limited him mostly to contested perimeter jumpers.

One of the solutions might be to involve West more in flowing, moving plays instead of isolating him against Martin as he did in the opener. Martin is one of the league's best defenders at his position, and while West is a good one-on-one scorer, he's even better at moving off the ball into open catch-and-shoot situations. Look for the Hornets to run a lot of screen-and-rolls with him and Paul, in which West can either get a switch on a guard and post up or pop out for an open 17-footer.

3. Keep Melo mellow: In a blowout loss like Sunday's, it's easy to focus on what went wrong … but the Hornets don't want to abandon what went right, either. The Hornets held Carmelo Anthony to 4-of-12 shooting thanks to the defense of James Posey and, yes, Peja Stojakovic, and that should be a continued area of focus in Game 2. The Nuggets are unlikely to keep stampeding to blowout wins if their leading scorer is off-target.

The Nuggets, meanwhile, aren't likely to take this lying down. Look for them to get Anthony the rock early, especially while Stojakovic is in the game. The Hornets can gamble off Denver's defense and trash-talking specialist Dahntay Jones while he's on the floor to send Peja some help, but he'll have to do it on his own once long-range bomber J.R. Smith checks in.



76ers vs. Magic

1. Keep daring them to shoot: For all the angst in Orlando about the collapse at the end of Game 1, one thing to keep in mind is that for much of that time the Magic did what you're supposed to do against the Sixers: Make them shoot jumpers. The Sixers were last in the league in 3-point shooting, so the odds of them continuing to rain in long J's like they did in the fourth quarter Sunday aren't real high.

Of greater concern, in fact, is the transition defense. The Sixers are an excellent offensive team when they're pushing the ball upcourt and a terrible one when they have to execute in the half court, and the Magic weren't getting back quickly enough on defense in Game 1. By focusing on that department -- and limiting the turnovers that create transition situations -- the Magic can prevent a repeat upset.

2. Put less on Hedo: Hedo Turkoglu played poorly in Game 1 partly because of a sprained ankle that isn't quite healed -- he was 2-for-8 with six points in 35 minutes -- but the Magic still ran a lot of their pick-and-roll plays with him as though he were completely healthy.

While the Sixers' defense probably had something to do with his struggles as well -- Andre Iguodala is a beast -- the Magic should also consider adjusting Turkoglu's offensive responsibilities until his ankle is better. Orlando can run pick-and-rolls with Rafer Alston and allow Turkoglu to spot up more on the weak side, where the ankle shouldn't affect his potency as a catch-and-shoot guy.

3. Keep going inside: The Sixers are single-covering Dwight Howard on the block with Sam Dalembert and Theo Ratliff, rail-thin shot-blockers whom Howard can easily get deep position against. The idea is to limit the opening for Orlando's 3-point shooters, and that worked reasonably well in Game 1 when the Magic were 5-of-18 from distance.

However, Orlando needs to take advantage by pounding it in to Howard relentlessly. The Magic went away from this in the fourth quarter on Sunday, and it was one reason they closed with a 19-point fourth quarter to squander a big lead. Howard shot 11-for-13 and finished with 31 points, but he had only four points in the fourth quarter -- and two of them came after an offensive rebound.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.