If you consider yourself a connoisseur of defense, the matchup between the Charlotte Bobcats and the Orlando Magic is the series to watch. On the final night of the regular season, the Bobcats passed the Magic to finish the season as the NBA's top defensive team. While the two teams have very different styles--Charlotte thrives thanks to excellent wing defense, forcing turnovers and solid performance in the paint, while the Magic funnels everything toward the league's reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Dwight Howard--both have proven very successful.
It's on the offensive end that the two teams differ in results. Orlando's fleet of excellent shooters around Howard set the NBA record for most three-pointers in a season. Charlotte has been substantially below average on the offensive end this season, which explains why the Bobcats are the seventh seed while the Magic boasted the league's second-best regular-season record and is a heavy favorite in this series.
WHEN ORLANDO HAS THE BALL
Pace: 90.4 possessions per 48 minutes (18th NBA)
Orlando Offensive Rating: 114.0 points per 100 possessions (2nd NBA)
Charlotte Defensive Rating: 104.4 points per 100 possessions (1st NBA)
The key figure in this entire series from Charlotte's perspective might just be reserve center Tyson Chandler. That's because the 7'1" Chandler is the Bobcats' best hope for defending Howard without having to offer double-team help. Veteran Theo Ratliff, who became Charlotte's starter in the middle after being acquired from San Antonio at the trade deadline, is a remarkable post defender for his size, but he gives up so much weight and strength to Howard that it is hard to see him having success one-on-one.
In the only head-to-head meeting between the teams after the deadline, Howard scored 27 points on 12-of-14 shooting on March 14 and could have done more had he not gone 3-for-10 at the free throw line. Chandler was available in that game, but foul trouble limited him to 16 minutes. The longer Chandler can stay on the court, the better for Charlotte, though Howard will pose problems no matter what.
Of course, the Orlando offense is much more than just Howard and shooters, though that option is quite effective. The Magic's offensive improvement in the second half of the season can be traced to the backcourt, where Jameer Nelson got healthy and Vince Carter settled in. Quietly, Carter improved massively over the course of the season. Through January, his True Shooting Percentage was a dreadful 48.9 percent. Over the last two and a half months, he improved that to 60.9 percent.
The Bobcats' strength in this matchup will be their ability to force turnovers at the league's third-highest rate. That along with keeping opponents off the foul line helped Charlotte lead the league in Defensive Rating despite being only slightly above average in terms of opponent shooting (12th in the league). The Magic is below average in terms of taking care of the basketball, so Gerald Wallace may be able to play the passing lanes and Raymond Felton can cause some problems with his on-ball pressure.
Also, the Bobcats managed to take Orlando forward Rashard Lewis out of the season series. In three games, Lewis averaged 10.3 points against Charlotte, shooting 5-of-25 from beyond the three-point line.
WHEN CHARLOTTE HAS THE BALL
Pace: 89.1 possessions per 48 minutes (26th NBA)
Charlotte Offensive Rating: 105.7 points per 100 possessions (24th NBA)
Orlando Defensive Rating: 104.4 points per 100 possessions (2nd NBA)
The Bobcats' season turned when the team acquired Stephen Jackson from the Golden State Warriors in mid-November. To that point, the Charlotte offense was on track for historic futility. It still wasn't all that good with Jackson, but was at least competent enough to win games in combination with the Bobcats' outstanding defense. Jackson's ability to create his own shot, even at a relatively low percentage (51.8 percent TS%), was a perfect fit after Charlotte dealt Emeka Okafor to New Orleans in the offseason.
Led by Jackson, the Bobcats' offense was heavily titled toward the team's perimeter players. Jackson and Wallace combined to use 48.5 percent of the team's possessions while on the floor, and Felton was third among the starters in usage. Centers Chandler and Ratliff are primarily bystanders on offense (Nazr Mohammed is much more offensive-minded, but how much he will play in this series is uncertain), while Boris Diaw's usage rate (16.4 percent this season) annually reflects the French forward's passive play.
Of course, just because plays started on the perimeter doesn't mean they ended there. Since Jackson and Wallace are slashers first and foremost, the Bobcats got to the free throw line at the league's third-best rate. Those driving lines may be there for Charlotte in this series, but Howard will be waiting at the rim. How the Bobcats respond will go a long way toward determining whether their offense can have any success. It did in the last head-to-head meeting, when Charlotte made 21 free throws and Jackson scored a game-high 28 points.
While the free throw line is a battle of strength on strength when the Bobcats have the ball, taking care of it is a case of the stoppable force against the moveable object. Charlotte turned the ball over more frequently on a per-possession basis than any other team in the league, a product of Jackson's and Wallace's aggressive forays to the hoop and Chandler's propensity for committing illegal screens. Orlando's defensive philosophy is to eschew defensive pressure in favor of playing solid position defense, so turnover percentage is the only one of the Four Factors in which the Magic does not rank in the top five.
On paper, the strength of the Orlando offense and the Charlotte defense should about cancel each other out. That leaves the question of whether the Bobcats can score on the Magic's own stout defense, and the answer is apparently no. In practice, that's how the four head-to-head meetings played out. Orlando was held to 108.2 points per 100 possessions, well below their usual scoring pace, but Charlotte managed just a 102.3 Offensive Rating (equivalent to the New Jersey Nets' season mark), losing the series three games to one.
The Bobcats have developed into a fairly dangerous team in the second half of the season, but they caught a bad break matching up with the Magic in the opening round. Since February, Orlando has been the league's best team, and no one else has been particularly close. If Charlotte can take two games off the Magic in this series, it will be an impressive accomplishment in the franchise's postseason debut.
Orlando in 5
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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