Thinking: The 44-38 Atlanta Hawks, a No. 5 seed, are a middle-of-the-pack playoff team in this year's Eastern Conference.
Thinking deeper: Point margin is a better measure of a team than record, and the Hawks are one of just two teams in the playoffs that were outscored during the regular-season (the other being the Pacers, who are the only team to make the playoffs with a losing record).
Thinking even deeper: Four of the seven most-lopsided losses by playoff teams belong to the Hawks. Is losing by 32, 33, 34 and 41, each of which Atlanta did this year, really that different than losing by 18? If the Hawks lost each of those games by "just" 18, they would have outscored their opponents for the season.
I don't know. Maybe there actually is value in keeping those lopsided losses close. Maybe that says something about a team's mental makeup. Maybe a determination to fight to the bitter end, no matter what the score, reflects a resolve that benefits teams during the grind of the playoffs.
The Hawks better hope not.
On paper, they're outmatched by Orlando, which has a better Offensive Rating, a better Defensive Rating and home-court advantage. If the Hawks are at all prone to laying down for their opponents, they're toast.
As mismatched as these teams appear to casual observes, a closer look reveals an even wider disparity. Only the Minnesota Timberwolves surpassed their actual wins by more Pythagorean wins than the Magic did, and no team's actual win total exceeded its Pythagorean win total by more than Atlanta's.
All that said, the Hawks actually won the season series from Orlando, 3-1.
Does that mean they have a chance?
WHEN ORLANDO HAS THE BALL
Pace: 89.9 possessions per 48 minutes (17th NBA)
Orlando Offensive Rating: 109.9 points per 100 possessions (12th NBA)
Atlanta Defensive Rating: 109.0 points per 100 possessions (15th NBA)
The Magic swept the Hawks in the second round last season, winning by an average score of 107-82. Although it seemed every Orlando player had his moment to shine, Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson stood out.
Howard averaged 21.0 points (84 percent from the field) and 13.3 rebounds per game, and Nelson averaged 17.3 points (57 percent from the field), 6.0 assists and 1.5 turnovers per game.
Thankfully for the Hawks, they will start different players at center and point guard this year. Instead of defending Howard and Nelson with Al Horford and Mike Bibby, Atlanta will start Jason Collins* and Kirk Hinrich.
*Collins will likely replace small forward Marvin Williams, not Horford in the lineup. Horford will slide to power forward, and Josh Smith will move to small forward.
Collins, who played for the Hawks last year, didn't play even six total minutes against Orlando in the playoffs last year. But his role has increased significantly under Larry Drew.
Still, Collins started just nine games this season when Al Horford, Smith, Williams and Joe Johnson also played. Of course, Collins may have started in some of his other 19 starts, even if everyone was healthy. But the main point stands: Atlanta will alter its rotation because its typical starting lineup doesn't match up well with the Magic. Although this is probably the Hawks' best recourse, I'm always leery of teams that have to play outside their comfort zone.
Speaking of, Atlanta will probably alter its rotation more--just for Howard--by playing Etan Thomas regularly, too. Before the Hawks emptied their bench in Wednesday's season finale, Thomas, a free-agent signing this summer, had played 27 percent of his minutes and committed 50 percent of his fouls against Orlando.
Despite their irregular minutes during the regular season, Collins (7'0" and 255 pounds) and Thomas (6'10" and 260 pounds) present Atlanta's best chance of defending Howard at least semi-successfully--a must for the Hawks to have even a chance of upsetting Orlando. Defending Nelson won't be quite as important, but they'll have to a better job than they did last year.
A smart defender with the size to back it up, at worst, he's not Bibby. At best, he'll make life difficult for Nelson.
Hinrich, and the Hawks' other perimeter defenders, should benefit from Atlanta's defensive strategy with Howard. Because the Hawks often single-covered Howard, his teammates didn't get the open three-point looks Howard's presence typically creates. They made just 22 percent of their three-point attempts against Atlanta this season.
With Hinrich and one of Collins or Thomas, the Hawks have allowed 92.3 points per 100 possession, according to BasketballValue.com. That would far and away lead the league in Defensive Rating. (That lineup doesn't stack up nearly as well offensively, which I'll get to in the next section.)
So, what does that leave for Orlando?
Probably a lot of Dwight Howard, still. When covered one-on-one, he'll present problems in the post for even the best defender. Plus, can Collins and Thomas combine to play the 39 minutes per game Howard has averaged in the playoffs during his career? Even if they do it once, can they repeat it through the entire series? And even if they repeat it through the entire series, can they perform adequately for that long?
I also expect a healthy dose of power forward Brandon Bass, Orlando's best interior threat outside of Howard. If Atlanta is focusing on Howard in the low post and Orlando's three-point shooters on the perimeter, that could free Bass in the high post.
The Magic, which ranks 27th in turnover percentage, might also enjoy the luxury of holding the ball longer, giving them more opportunities to work for better shots. The Hawks rank 29th in opponent turnover percentage.
WHEN ATLANTA HAS THE BALL
Pace: 87.9 possessions per 48 minutes (27th NBA)
Atlanta Offensive Rating: 107.5 points per 100 possessions (20th NBA)
Orlando Defensive Rating: 103.1 points per 100 possessions (3rd NBA)
If the above section seemed too optimistic for the Hawks, it might be. But also consider, judging by its roster moves (acquiring Thomas and Hinrich) and its rotation changes (starting Collins), Atlanta is clearly trying to trade offense for defense.
Remember those lineups I mentioned above--with Hinrich and one of Collins and Thomas? As well as they've played defensively, they've been almost equally horrific offensively. Their Offensive Rating is 95.3--which, opposite of their Defensive Rating, would far and away rank as the NBA's worst.
Collins and Thomas are extremely limited offensively, and in Atlanta, Hinrich hasn't gotten to the free-throw line as often or passed as well as he usually does. The Hawks' other players just aren't talented enough to compensate for lackluster offensive play at two positions.
Maybe Josh Smith can have some success posting up Hedo Turkoglu, who ranks 249th in post-up defense, according to Synergy. Otherwise, Atlanta will have to settle for a lot of low-efficiency jumpers or challenging Dwight Howard. Neither of those options appears promising.
Howard getting into foul trouble--or even ejected because of technical fouls--might give Atlanta a faint glimmer of hope, but it probably shouldn't. The Hawks rank 28th in fouls drawn per possession, and Orlando ranks 23rd in fouls committed per possession. Howard likely won't be in foul trouble, and he likely won't have much to be upset about.
Whatever the Hawks try against Howard, er, I mean the Orlando defense (is there really a difference?), they'll probably have only one shot to do it. Atlanta ranks 29th in offensive rebounding percentage, and the Magic leads the league in defensive rebounding percentage.
Orlando has an excellent defense, and Atlanta has a below-average offense that the Magic defense makes worse. This one isn't difficult to figure out. Unless the Hawks abort their defense-first strategy, they're not going to score much.
The Magic swept the Hawks in the second round last year, when both teams were better. Orlando was five Pythagorean wins better, and Atlanta was 15 Pythagorean wins better. Neither team has as much hope of advancing deep into the playoffs this year, but the Magic has widened the gap between itself and the Hawks.
Atlanta will probably have to choose between offense and defense, a problem the Magic won't share. Orlando is one of just six teams--along with the Bulls, Heat, Lakers, Mavericks and Spurs--that have a top-12 offense and a top-12 defense.
The Magic can just play its game, and unless the Master of Panic makes a surprise appearance, that should be plenty. I doubt Stan Van Gundy will find a way to screw up this series.
Watching whether the Hawks' defensive focus actually yields relatively positive results might actually be compelling. Watching whether the Hawks' offense can produce probably won't be.
Orlando in 5
Dan Feldman is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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