I’ve been watching the Orlando Magic now with some curiosity. I love the way they play. I’ve often thought that their style of play might produce a lot of wins during the regular season, but flame out in the playoffs. They have great fundamentals on both offense and defense, but they rely so heavily on the three point shot that I suspected the great defense of Boston (pre-Garnett injury) and Cleveland might force them out of their sets and the shots might not fall. But Orlando did a great job of doing what they do, and not letting their opponent derail them. I usually like the underdog, and I was glad to see them put away Cleveland and put an end to the Kobe/Lebron love-fest.
In so many ways the Magic are the anti-Thunder of 2008-2009. First, they have a Superman in the middle, and we have some Clark Kents. Not scrubs, but certainly not able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Secondly, their unbelievable reliance on the three ball, third, efficient offense despite the heavy three ball, and fourth, great perimeter defense backed up by said Superman.
The Magic spent a lot of time in an offensive set that saw 4 guys outside the three point arc with Dwight Howard in the paint. The four guys weren’t always the same, sometimes it was Turkoglu, Lewis, Lee and Alston, but also there was Pietrus, Redick, or Anthony Johnson. It didn’t matter because it became a pick your poison gambit for the defense. If they doubled Howard in the post, it left a shooter open on the perimeter; if they played Howard straight up, he rocked your world like he did last night with 40 points and 14 rebounds. And Cleveland did double him. The only hope is that Howard might miss enough free throws to neutralize his power game, but you saw how that worked. Howard has a very basic offensive repertoire, just drop steps, hooks and little spin moves; not much else. But his whole offensive game is built on his power and his speed. He is getting by just fine without the dream shake and all of these advanced moves because he is so quick and so powerful. The Thunder don’t have anything like that anywhere on it’s roster, and neither do most teams.
The Magic also run pick and rolls with a big man. They often use Turkoglu as the ball handler and he has been phenomenal. Once he gets his screen he penetrates into mid range territory and at that point his options are many as the defense is backtracking and rotating. He can find an open shooter on the perimeter, he can hit the guy rolling to the basket (Howard) who is a great finisher, he can take it to the rim himself and have Howard box out, or he can pull up and shoot off the dribble like he did to take the lead with 1 second in game 2 of the Cleveland series. He has averaged over 5 assists per game in the playoffs. The Thunder have two skilled big men in Durant and Green who may be able to handle the rock well enough in coming years to run the pick and roll like Turk, but I’ve never seen them run it more than occasionally (Durant).
The Magic shoot the three more than anybody in the playoffs, and second most in the NBA during the regular season. Through 19 playoff games they’ve already launched 444 3 point attempts! That seems like a lot, but it’s just over 23 attempts per game. During the regular season they launched over 26 per game. They aren’t the best three point shooting team by percentage, there are actually 6 teams better, but nobody shoots more of them this time of year. I wrote an article based on Hollinger research that showed that even a poor three point shooting team (like the Thunder) would score more points per game and have higher efficiency by taking more threes. It’s not the percentage so much as you might think, but it’s the amount of threes that a team takes that really makes a difference. I know that sounds crazy but it’s true because of the extra 1 point you get for each make over a long two. The Thunder are dead last in the NBA in three point attempts at only 949 on the season. In fact we were the only team that didn’t attempt at least 1000 threes. We average just over 11 attempts per game.
While the Magic spread the floor with three point shooters, the Thunder only had two and a half legitimate three point options this season. The Magic had 8 guys who attempted at least 100 threes this year (9 if you count the traded Keith Bogans), and only 1 of them shot below .356 from beyond the arc. The Thunder had 3 guys take at least 100 threes (Durant, Green and Westbrook) but only Durant and Green shot it well. Westbrook shot .271 from deep. Kyle Weaver shot .344, but he only attempted 93 of them. Damien Wilkins shot .375, but he only attempted 72 and he’s out of the rotation. Watson, Thabo and Atkins all took some threes but were below the stink line of .300.
Getting a few more shooters (more than one!) and spreading the floor would help so much with our offensive efficiency. Can you imagine how much easier offense could be if Westbrook could drive into the paint and dish off to a man or two or three on the wing who can hit the three? It would force those defenders to actually stay home and defend those guys on the perimeter instead of packing it in and seeing Westbrook hit a wall of opposing jerseys.
And finally the Magic have been playing great defense. It starts out on the perimeter, but if it breaks down, there is the big guy in the middle to cover up a lot of mistakes. It’s funny that a team with Rashard Lewis and Turkoglu and Redick would be playing such great defense, but it starts with the system. It’s effort and the system and the Magic have been emphasizing defense with a team full of veterans all season long. The Thunder weren’t terrible on defense, but they weren’t great either. Thabo and Weaver were very good and even great at times, but good defense is a 5 man deal, and there is some very good statistical evidence that veteran teams play better defense than young teams (Boston is a great example of this). That’s good for us because the Thunder are young and our core is getting older and gaining experience. Now however, the opponent knows that they have nothing to fear around the basket against the Thunder.
Before you even suggest it, I am not advocating Hasheem Thabeet. No way no how. We need an enforcer in the middle, but I think Thabeet is years away from ever being able to be a power player in the middle. His game is sort of soft right now, and we need somebody with a mean streak in the paint.
I assume coach Brooks was watching and taking notes on the Magic. In the Thunder Blog Brooks was quoted saying ” While the players will be working on getting better over the summer, Brooks said he’ll be doing the same as a coach. He plans to visit coaches across the country this summer, looking for better insight into running a team, whether it’s by picking up another practice drill, installing another play or improving his ability to communicate with players.” I think that’s great. Ten years ago Brooks played one season under Jeff VanGundy in New York, where they were a very good defensive team. Jeff VanGundy and Stan VanGundy are both protege’s of Pat Riley, so the framework is likely in Brook’s head. He also played for Mike Fratello, who coaches great defense. He played for Rudy Tomjanovich, who’s Houston teams were excellent on defense, and he coached with George Karl, who knows something about defense. I hope Brooksy is on the road right now talking to those types of guys, and I hope Presti is figuring out how to get more shooters on our perimeter, and how to get a guy with a nasty streak under our basket.