We here in Atlanta wonder how the Hawks can possibly guard Dwight Howard and his surrounding shooters, but it cuts both ways. No opponent relishes the thought of facing a team this gifted in a best-of-seven. (Ask Boston.)
Asked what he thought the Magic sees in the Hawks, Jamal Crawford said Monday: “I think they’d see a talented team, very athletic, that could pose problems.”
At peak capacity, the Hawks are good enough to fell a team as sound as Orlando, and Orlando stands as 1B to Cleveland’s 1A not just in the East but in the whole wide NBA. The Magic is favored in this series, but the favorite doesn’t always win. The Hawks were a bigger favorite in Round 1 and were 24 minutes from elimination.
“That can be fun,” Crawford said, speaking of being the underdog. “The pressure’s on them.”
The local consensus has long been that Orlando is the one team the Hawks cannot handle, and on the record that has been true. The Magic won six consecutive meetings over the past two seasons; indeed, the Hawks went more than a calendar year — from Oct. 28, 2008 to March 24, 2010 — without beating their Southeast Division cousin. But Orlando is tough on everybody (Cleveland most notably), and if you look hard you’ll see the Hawks have a puncher’s chance.
This is one of the rare teams that has the option of attempting to guard Howard straight up. Mike Woodson said Monday he hadn’t decided if the Hawks would enter Tuesday’s Game 1 allowing Al Horford, who was the MVP of great escape against Milwaukee, to tug on Superman’s cape by his lonesome. “I have to sleep on it,” the coach said.
But is such a strategy feasible? Woodson: “Without a doubt it is. But we doubled [Howard] in the game we won [in March], and we doubled him in the [Thanksgiving night] game where we had the lead.”
Not many Magic opponents have such a choice. Lacking even a semblance of a center, they have to surround Howard and leave themselves open to the Magic shooters, and that can be worse. Yes, Howard led the NBA in field-goal shooting, but Orlando was also fourth-best in 3-point shooting. “Pick your poison,” Woodson said.
Play Howard one-on-one and he might score two points. (Or, if you foul him, only one. He’s a terrible free-throw shooter, as we know.) Double him and his team might get three. The guess is that the Hawks will try it both ways, shotgunning their fouls with Horford and Zaza Pachulia and the seldom-seen Jason Collins, but the series figures to turn on how long Horford can stay on the floor and how much he can make Howard work at the other end.
Howard averaged only 26.5 minutes in Round 1 against Charlotte because he was called for 22 fouls. (Magic teammates dubbed him, “Foul On You.”) And that was against the tag team of Theo Ratliff, Tyson Chandler and Nazr Mohammed. Horford is better than all three of those put together.
Everybody who does one of those matchup boxes will give the edge at center to the Magic, but it’s not as big an edge as you’d think. If Horford can, on a nightly basis, hold Howard to 20 points and 15 rebounds while getting 12 and 10 himself, the Hawks could steal this thing.
“If we can get Al through the first half,” Woodson said, meaning keep him out of early foul trouble, “I think we can play.”
My first inclination was to take Magic in six, but something about this matchup leads me to think it’ll go the distance. And where would the weight of expectation in such a Game 7 fall? Not on the Hawks.
The Milwaukee series was strange: The Hawks went from too loose to too tight to almost gone. But they made it through, and they see real opportunity in Round 2. So do I. Hawks in seven.