Orlando is just flat out better than Atlanta, its as simple as that. When Orlando is hitting shots, it is tough for any team in the league to hang with them, of course that is as long as Howard is on the court.
He completely shifts what the other team is doing on the court, offensively and, despite his many critics, defensively. The Hawks, realizing Marcin Gortat was in the game, drove and drove until they had increased the lead to seven just before halftime. Gortat had a +/- of -4. Dwight? +21. These numbers aren’t coincidental. His presence shifts mindsets and determination to get to the rim.
He is playing a smarter game this series than certainly last, maybe the most intelligent he has played for a while. He isn’t recklessly going after every layup attempt, or trying to outmuscle Al Horford on every possession. Sure, he still has moments of weakness, or strength, whichever you prefer, where he decides enough is enough and tosses Horford or Smith or Collins to the ground like they were guards. But, he is avoiding serious foul trouble, so far, in the late stages of the game, which is critical to Orlando’s success.
The logic for Orlando not being the obvious choice for championship frontrunner lied in the offseason move to bring in Vince Carter for Hedo, replacing the weirdness on the team that was a main function of their success. Plus, Vince Carter was never considered mentally tough enough to lead a team to championship heights. But what was not considered was the emergence of Jameer Nelson as a legitimate presence in the playoffs.
Yes, he was good last season before injury struck, but he has shown a willingness to take clutch shots and be an active leader for this Orlando team that wasn’t always so obvious in seasons past. Vince Carter isn’t the best player on this team, he probably isn’t even the second best. Howard and Nelson run this team. Carter is a luxury for a deep Orlando team that has more shooters than necessary.
Orlando was constructed purposefully so that its best player wasn’t the primary and often sole scoring option. This is the opposite mindset of Cleveland, who at times can only rely on LeBron to drop 10 in a row to stop the bleeding.
What is really strange about Orlando is besides Matt Barnes, they don’t really have a “pure” small forward. Yes, Pietrus can fill in and Carter can take some time filling the position, but thats it. Plus, Rashard Lewis isn’t the prototypical power forward either. They don’t have typical forwards and are overloaded with guards who can really shoot, or Pietrus who can go ice cold.
Speaking of Pietrus, he has a similar problem with JR Smith. He feels obligated at times to create off the dribble and score. But, ideally, they either are spot up shooters or are dunking the ball. Last night, Pietrus wanted to take his man off the dribble and nail a step-back shot, only to have it clank off the rim (of course, this was in the middle of an Atlanta run).
Well, that was the good part of the game. The Hawks are another story.
To be fair to Atlanta, they showed up to the game last night. They didn’t crumble like game 1. They competed on both ends of the court, or, really, offensively they competed. They were going to the basket, utilizing their overwhelming athleticism for more than a quarter or two.
Jamal Crawford had to carry this Hawks team for extended periods of time, only to have his luck and touch disappear for critical stretches in the fourth quarter. The Hawks simply cannot contend with Howard, their only hope is that Howard self destructs in a rampant fury where his elbows turn into lethal weapons.
Going home will be a different story for Atlanta, or it should be. They feed off of the energy from the home crowd, more than most teams.
Al Horford had an excellent game, same with Crawford as discussed above. Johnson, Smith, and Williams couldn’t find the basket and Mike Bibby is barely holding on. Don’t even bring up Zaza, who looks hapless whenever he enters the game. Mike Woodson looks a mixture of confusion, anger, and worriment. He looks like a prized dog breeder who has taken his pooch to the Best in Show competition, only to have the dog take a dump on the scorer’s table just before judging.
Its a shame that after all he has done for this team, he will in all likelihood be fired this offseason.
Orlando continues to make its case for best left. They have really dominated the Hawks for two games now and their scoring prowess looks potent. But, eventually they will have a game where their shots are not falling, whether it be this series or a series in the near future. But this team seems tougher and better than last seasons, and Hedo looks less and less critical after his flop in Toronto. Why can’t Orlando win it all?