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April 27, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
Changing Storylines

by Kevin Pelton

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at Orlando 101, Atlanta 76 (Atlanta leads 3-2)
Pace: 86.3
Offensive Ratings: Orlando 115.9, Atlanta 88.9

The danger of the playoffs is how easy it is to get seduced by narratives and the margin, often razor thin, between victory and defeat. When a friend asked me Tuesday morning whether I thought the Orlando Magic could come back to win this series with the Atlanta Hawks, I gave the Magic little chance. Though the Hawks' 6-2 edge in the season series was a troubling indicator, at the same time Orlando had lost two games in Atlanta by a combined seven points. But for a couple of plays, the series could easily have been tied or even led by the Magic. Orlando provided a reminder that it is still very much alive by dominating Game Five back at home and now needs only a win at Philips Arena to host the deciding Game Seven.

Tuesday's game turned early because of foul trouble, but not the way you'd imagine. It was the Magic that saw two starters sidelined by a pair of quick fouls, which proved a blessing in disguise. Hedo Turkoglu's fouls put the superior Quentin Richardson in the game, while Dwight Howard's rare stint on the bench forced Orlando to diversify its offense. Guards Jameer Nelson and J.J. Redick took control of the Magic attack and responded with outstanding play. By the time Howard returned to the game, Orlando had doubled the Hawks' score and built a lead the poor-scoring visitors would have been hard pressed to overcome.

Atlanta has a well-earned reputation for quitting on games early, and it was fitting that a team that was blown out exceptionally often for a playoff outfit ended up with a 25-point postseason loss to its name. Guards Jamal Crawford and Joe Johnson were the worst culprits. Crawford had been one of the most valuable players in the league thus far during the postseason, but he turned in a 2-for-10 shooting effort, while Johnson missed 10 of his 12 shot attempts. The Hawks were outscored by 30 with Crawford on the floor and Johnson was a -28.

Even had Crawford and Johnson been locked in, Atlanta might not have been able to match the Magic's offensive efficiency in this game. At last, Orlando got some threes to fall--11 in all, more than half the team's total in the first four games of this series (21). Increased pick-and-roll action opened up better looks as the Magic's offense was remarkably balanced: all nine rotation players scored at least seven points.

The challenge for Orlando now is to maintain that offensive flow while making Howard (who took just four shot attempts in 29 minutes) a bigger factor. It might be advisable to begin the game playing outside-in and look to establish Howard later, after Jason Collins is on the bench. I'd also love to see more of Quentin Richardson and Redick on the wings. Having that duo in the game allows the Magic to defend both Crawford and Johnson effectively without sacrificing anything in terms of shooting. Tellingly, Orlando was just +4 with Turkoglu on the floor as compared to +21 in Richardson's 26 minutes.

at L.A. Lakers 106, New Orleans 90 (Lakers lead 3-2)
Pace: 87.1
Offensive Ratings: L.A. Lakers 123.8, New Orleans 101.6

As was pointed out repeatedly on the broadcast, a year ago the Los Angeles Lakers delivered a statement Game Five victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder that jolted them from their late-season doldrums en route to a championship. The parallels aren't exact this season; while the Thunder administered a blowout of its own at home in Game Four, the Lakers had outscored the New Orleans Hornets in this year's series. This time around, Game Five was in some doubt in the fourth quarter. Still, it sent the same message that this remains very much the Lakers' series to lose.

The most critical difference from the Lakers was the way their big men dominated the paint and the offensive glass, utilizing their size advantage against the smaller New Orleans frontline. The Lakers came up with 15 offensive rebounds while holding the Hornets just three, a huge discrepancy even when accounting for the Lakers' additional shot attempts. Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol outrebounded counterparts Carl Landry and Emeka Okafor 18-9 while also providing effective post play and rendering Landry and Okafor non-factors offensively. You can't ask for much more dominance from a unit.

That noted, it was actually the Lakers' bench that blew this game open with runs to start both the second (10-0) and fourth (10-2) quarters. The first spurt erased an early New Orleans lead; the second effectively pushed the game out of reach. The L.A. second unit brought needed energy and activity and stifled the Hornets' reserves, who looked lost without Chris Paul in the game. Unsurprisingly, New Orleans was outscored by nine points in the seven minutes Paul rested, which surely felt longer to the Hornets' coaching staff. Jarrett Jack contributed nothing in his 14 minutes of action, during which he scored one point and handed out a single assist against three turnovers.

On the energy front, Kobe Bryant also provided a notable infusion with his stunning, out-of-nowhere poster dunk over an unsuspecting Okafor. To that point, Bryant had been coasting while dealing with the left foot/ankle injury suffered in Sunday's Game Four, but the dunk fired him up--Bryant scored twice more in the final three minutes of the first half and only Paul's answers at the other end kept the Lakers from going into halftime with more momentum. Bryant finished with an efficient 19 points on 8-of-13 shooting, while backcourt mate Derek Fisher scored 13 points on seven shooting possessions.

There may not be many adjustments for the Hornets to make before Game Six on Thursday. Landry and Okafor aren't suddenly going to grow (though it would be nice for Okafor to grab a few rebounds; as M. Haubs of The Painted Area noted on Twitter, he has an uncharacteristically poor 13 defensive boards in five games in this series) and New Orleans' supporting cast isn't going to turn into better players. Despite Marco Belinelli's slumpbusting 21-point effort, at this point the Hornets don't have any reliable scoring options beyond Paul and Trevor Ariza. That's about what everyone expected from this series. It just might have taken longer to get there than expected.

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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