Sunday, April 29, 2012

Screw Home Court 'Advantage' in the 1st Round

No, seriously. Stan Van Gundy's Magic don't need it. Especially in the 1st round when nerves of expectations set in. Time and time again, Van Gundy's boys love playing the underdog role. Game 1 Saturday night was no exception. I've almost always preferred starting a postseason on the road because you have 2 games to get your act together before playing in front of our raucous home fans. If you win your 2 games at home, you've done what you're supposed to do and now have to somehow carry momentum into the next two on the road. However, if you can steal one of the first two on your opponent's home court, then you can rip their hearts out when the series shifts back to your home. This post isn't just in reference to the win in Indianapolis or the Magic's choke job last year to the Hawks, who stole Game 1 from us in Amway Center's postseason debut.

Oh yeah, you knew I'd bring Vince Carter into this. Don't make me talk about blowing back-to-back games at the O-Rena against Boston. That Game 1 was us sleepwalking and storming back only to fall short. At least we ended Amway Arena correctly and honorably with a Game 5 victory in 2010. Did we sweep the first 2 series before that? Well, yeah. But our swag level was through the roof against Charlotte and Atlanta. Plus, there was no way the Bobcats were upsetting us with Jameer going berserk. We were still owning the Hawks back then. It feels like a lifetime ago I know.

Remember our Finals run in '09? We lost Game 1 of the first round to the Sixers. A Dwight Howard suspension, a Hedo Game 4 dagger, and a smashing Gortat Game 6 start later and we survived a brutally difficult Philly series. For some reason, when we begin a postseason at home, the nerves just set in and we leave the door open for getting upset on our parquet. To build on the whole 'nervousness' factor when it comes to Game 1s of series, the Magic would then steal Game 1 in Boston and Game 1 in Cleveland. The 2-3-2 Finals format is the outlier of my post and I've always wanted it to be changed to the normal 2-2-1-1-1. Though if Courtney Lee makes that alley oop lay-up in Game 2, man. Still not convinced with me hating on 1st round home court?

Let's go into the time machine to 2008. Back when Tiger was an Amway Arena regular. The Raptors came to town to try and terrorize our postseason hopes. Orlando hadn't won a playoff series in 12 years. On pure adrenaline and spitfire shooting, we won Game 1. However, Game 2 should have been a defeat. Chris Bosh couldn't make us pay late. We left the door open for Toronto and thankfully they didn't rip our hearts out. It's not even an energy issue with us over the past 5 years. Shots won't go if you don't know how to deal with the amped up circumstances of playoff basketball. Stan is a good enough coach where even if we fail on the road the first two games, there's no reason to fret. Adjustments can be made and the players see home as a safe haven. While as the other way around, the pressure is on to not blow it at home out of the gate. 

If Stan Van Gundy is the "Master of Panic" as Shaq likes to repeatedly state, then I don't want to know what we should call Frank Vogel. Vogel is a smart dude, but I swear his eyes are filled with shear terror. Even at tip-off you can see the fear in Vogel's pupils. It's something to keep an eye on for Game 2 now. Trends are meant to be broken, but I pray that Van Gundy's undefeated record (in his entire NBA coaching career) of taking an entire series after winning Game 1 holds up. He's got the talent, the guts, and hopefully the smarts in this roster to accomplish that. 

I'd like to thank Earl Clark for making me look somewhat basketball smart for one night. His defensive presence at center was something fun to watch. Now just stop shooting jumpers, attack the rim, and work on free throws and you'll be earning big bucks in no time. The shocker of the night was clearly Jason Richardson. When guys like Redick and Ryno couldn't knock down a shot or get a decent look, there was Stan drawing up two outstanding plays from timeouts that freed up J-Rich who knocked down two outrageously clutch 3-pointers. 5-of-8 from downtown more than makes up for going 6-of-15 overall. Then you had Q-Rich doing what he does. Knocking down the occasional open look and playing lock-down defense. Hedo is clearly greatly irritated with his mask, and his shot wasn't as sweet as Thursday. However, Maskoglu made up for it all on the defensive end and keeping Granger in front of him late.

The great news out of this Game 1 win is that the Magic can improve...a lot. The help defense has to come harder, faster, and more consistently or Indy will torch us with long bombs. Jameer hasn't quite yet mastered weaving his way between the ridiculously tall and lengthy Pacers defense. Mighty Mite still played well enough to earn what should have been a double-double. Big Baby had his moments, put up a much-needed double-double all while he's noticeably hobbling. But Glen can't give Hibbert a vast chunk of 9 blocks again. Granted, a different officiating crew probably would've fouled Roy out Saturday night (but I won't nitpick if the refs since we won). Duhon is still horrendous and the Pacers will pressure Chris in the backcourt a lot more from here on out. SVG needs to get Ish out there, but if he keeps sticking with DuDu at least it'll be for 10 minutes maximum. Redick and Ryno can provide a hell of a lot more scoring support. I'm fearing both will disappear once again in the playoffs. It's just one game though. Indiana of course will not continue missing open shots. But then again, neither will we. The fact we held Indy to 34.5 FG% and won a game while we only shot about thirty-nine percent where we got out-rebounded, and out-transitioned is extra special. Remember, we couldn't keep anyone under 50% from the field without Dwight. Again, Indy won't miss wide open looks, but our guys moved their feet, plugged up holes in the paint, and flat out bamboozled the Pacers with help defense at times. Hey, it's better to be lucky than good at times, and well, we earned our luck to snag that first win. It's one of those playoff victories that's almost impossible not to celebrate rambunctiously if you're a Magic fan. Here's to 3 more in the coming week or so. Game 2 is Monday at 7:30 p.m. EST on NBA TV if you don't get the FSNMagic feed.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Earl Clark is Your Series X-Factor

No, I'm not talking about the singing show. Earl went from being stuck in China to slowly but surely becoming a key role player off Stan Van Gundy's bench. Daniel Orton may be designated as back-up center. But don't be fooled, Earl is going to get a good chunk of minutes guarding Roy Hibbert. Earl has the energy level to be a terror on each end. Earl will find himself competing against two other 'energy' players: Amundson and Psycho T. He can average 3 blocks with ease if he gets just 20 minutes. When Clark commits himself to crashing the boards, and passes up jumpers for higher percentage lay-ups and attempts, great things happen for this team. If Earl doesn't settle then this is going to be a hell of a series. The Magic won the regular season series 3-1 versus Indy. Yes, Dwight played in each game. Yes, our only loss came with Chris Duhon starting. However, look at our first matchup in late January. Dwight had a very mediocre game, yet we still crushed the Pacers in Bankers FieldHouse. How? Earl Clark's defensive presence at center and the spark provided that was instilled in every Magic player on the court and bench. Examine the play-by-play. We're down 22-29 when Earl comes into the game in the 2nd quarter. We finish that half tied 45-45 with Earl playing most of that period. Earl spurred on the momentum swing. When Clark comes back in late in the 3rd period with the Magic up 69-60, he helps extend the lead to double digits. Indy was at full strength here and Ryno was our leading scorer. This should be the blueprint for the series. The Pacers are a deep team, but we can be as well if guys like Earl elevate themselves. Here's a nice little Yahoo! preview with quotes. Offense won't be the problem. We've managed more than well without D12 on that end. All about defense and camouflaging the fact we don't have the best defender in basketball at our services.  

Glen Davis has to somehow remain relatively healthy and mighty effective with Game 1 approaching. Swollen ankle or not, Baby's a gamer and will fight through the pain and discomfort. Glen is one of our main locker room leaders (a remarkable turnaround from 2 months ago). Unfortunately, Big Baby stands little chance of impeding Hibbert, no matter how physical he gets with Roy. I think foul trouble will play a huge role for him and Ryno (that's where Earl comes in). I can see Glen focusing more of his defensive time and effort on David West. West sneakily has raised his scoring average towards the conclusion of the season. Frank Vogel definitely wants West to be one of his main offensive weapons. I think Vogel secretly doesn't have much faith in Granger providing a scoring punch. 

Speaking of Mr. Anderson, the Ryan King has to find a away to average a 20-10 in this series. It's a far cry from his disastrous Hawks series last year. This go-around, Ryan also has a lot of money on the line. Most people outside of Orlando still think Ryno isn't as good without Dwight. Prove them wrong on the national stage and shut them up. If Ryan ends up being our leading scorer and we somehow knock off Indy, it's possibly $10 million (instead of $7-8) per year that will be thrown at him from a few teams come free agency time. The decision to match that offer sheet will be extremely difficult to make, especially with no General Manager or Head Coach certainty hovering over every single thought process the franchise makes going forward. Back to Indy, Ryno has to just continue to show the same tenacity in the paint that he has most of this season. If he does that, the 3-point looks will come. 

It's really unfair to put a lot of pressure on Daniel Orton. After all, I was there in New Orleans in late February watching the young Kentucky Wildcat finally touch the parquet. But the Magic didn't pick up Dansanity's player option. Now Orton finds himself battling for an NBA contract. A decent showing against the Pacers' frontcourt will certainly earn him a few phone calls. Who knows if we'll try and re-sign him, but Daniel's progress is certainly encouraging to watch. He still has hands worse than Rony Seikaly and Adonal Foyle combined, but he's in decent shape and has widened my eyes a bit at a few offensive moves he's converted on. Also, Orton sets picks better than Dwight. No doubt about it. Howard never sets himself and just uses his elbows to open up room. Orton actually puts a body on the guy he's screening. Also, Daniel's knack for rebounding (boxes out better than Dwight) and positioning is as outstanding as Ryno's is on the offensive end. Orton will be tested often. I have no clue if he can hang with Roy, but hey, this is how you earn your paycheck. 

SVG has done a great job keeping his secretly of 'Will Hedo start or not?' I doubt it throws Vogel off because it's really tough not seeing Maskoglu start after such a great return in Memphis on Thursday. Turk drove to the paint once against the Grizzlies. Every shot attempt Maskoglu had came from the outside. Yet, he miraculously shot 7-of-13 with Rudy Gay in his face each time. Turkey Dance having to guard Rudy Gay was superb practice for keeping up with Danny Granger. I'm saying Hedo has to be clutch in this series, but he can't be a detrimental pain in the ass. Hedo must assist Jameer and Duhon give flow to the game. A 'veteran' can be viewed in a positive or waning light. Let's see which way Hedo ends up. The Grizzlies game should give us hope. 

Jameer is gimpy. We know this, our opponent knows this, and it really doesn't matter because Nelson is long at a point in his career where he's dealt with injuries and still managed to raise his performances in every postseason since his '09 NBA Finals return that I'd rather not continue to mention right now. He's the sole captain now since the other captain is in L.A. rehabbing. Nelson, since his St. Joe's days, has been one of the best lead-by-example guys in basketball. He won't yell at you, but the way Jameer carries himself demands the respect of his teammates. Nelson needs to get dribble penetration. I don't care if he has to dribble around for 20 seconds, eventually someone (or the bucket) will open up. Mighty Mite has his hands full with the quicker and more athletic Darren Collison and George Hill. Nelson is playing for one final great NBA contract. Whether that's in Orlando or not, we don't know. But Jameer has been in the underdog role since the NBA Draft. He's had an admirable career up to this point, and Magic fans need to rely on a fantastic series from Mighty Mite. 

Chris Duhon's ankles are on notice. And every Magic fan will be reaching for the aspirin and TUMS until Stan realizes that he needs Ish in there. I hope it doesn't take longer than 2 games for SVG to realize that Chris is pure rubbish. Back when he had to look over his back at Larry Hughes earlier in the year, Duhon wasn't actually half bad. But Chris is back to his usual disastrous levels. That 3-ball isn't going down as often as in January either. When/if Ish does get the call, Mr. Smith will have to penetrate at will. No jumpers unless wide open by a 10-foot radius, and always seeking the open man like we no Ish can do. A few ankle-breakers wouldn't hurt either. Ish is fighting for his long-term NBA career as well.

J.J. Redick can play worse than Duhon and we'd still pick up his option this summer. I just can't depend on J-Rich showing up. Jason has been so injured so many times that I can't keep count. Richardson's legs are shot. Worse than his decreasing hops is him forgetting how to display jumper consistency. The best thing Jason can do is cut early and often to the basket. I'm not optimistic though. And so I look to the man who makes more money than Jason, Mr. Redick. J.J.'s underrated ability to be unselfish yet still get his points is paramount in winning the backcourt matchup. Redick, like Jameer, must find a balance between attacking the rack and settling for that open jumper which will present itself often because SVG's system always provides open looks. I have no idea how we're going to stop Paul George. He's so tall yet athletic enough that he can indeed play shooting guard. Also, Leandro Barbosa will give me nightmares in one of these games because that's what he does to us Magic fans. 

Q-Rich looks to be healthy. That's bad news for Danny Granger who will see a lot of Quentin in his face. If QQQ can just knock down the occasional open 3 and play the same tough-nose defense that he's displayed against the likes of LeBron and Paul Pierce, then we'll be all for the better. DeAndre Liggins being inactive means Q will be our main 'All-Star' stopper. Von Wafer will steal minutes from Q-Rich if the DePaul veteran becomes ineffective on both ends. Wafe God is lightning in a bottle and will need to spark our guys when called upon. I admire Von's commitment to playing the role of distributor when he drives into that paint of late.

I'm really proud to see Justin Harper get a lot of time in our regular season finale in Memphis. You could see the Richmond product had some rough goings in the 1st half. Second half however saw Harper start banging around in the paint more, and attacking the rim similarly to how he found his groove at Strasbourg. The 2-for-8 3-point shooting is a bit scary, but let the kid get comfortable. 16 points and 7 rebounds is still a great stat line for him considering this was his first game of seeing a lot of court time.

Give me Magic in 6. If for nothing else, because LITERALLY no one on ESPN and other well known national outlets are giving us a chance to even push this to seven games. It's Blue & White Ignite time, folks. The Pacers have the pressure of dispatching of a 'crippled' squad. There's a reason why Frank Vogel isn't making bold statements or predictions. He knows this is a dangerous situation. I yearn for SVG to prove to the rest of the league that a top 5 coach can keep a team together through the craziest and depressing of injuries and blowout losses. Lastly, it must be said but I am disappointed in our franchise not sponsoring any watch parties or giving out free playoff t-shirts for the first time in years. Not cool, guys. It hasn't helped that most of the fair weather fans have already given up. That's ok, they'll be back on the bandwagon soon. We've got plenty of room. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Show Me Another Wacky Lockout Postseason

A 66-game season is a hell of a lot lengthier than 50 games, but the '99 Lockout postseason and potentially these upcoming playoffs both have had similar journeys that preceded them: Compact schedules, short training camps, exhausted players, depleted patience among many coaches and rosters, and quite the vast amount of injuries that appear above normal than your usual 82-game campaign. Obviously there's no sample size to back up the possibility of an improbable #8 seed-like NBA Finals run, but you have to wonder how much some title-seeking teams have held back this season than normal?

I am looking at that Eastern Conference #6 versus #3 first round matchup. Because, well let's be honest, that's where the Magic find themselves. Facing off against a very consistent #3 seed Pacers. If Indiana was not facing Orlando, Indy would be touted as the Eastern Conference version of the Spurs in regards to being underrated despite a solid season. Frank Vogel's squad has been rewarded for beating the teams they should have beaten this season. Home court advantage is the supposed reward. In '99, the #3 seed Magic got embarrassed by a clearly superior #6 Sixers squad. That upset officially ended our first phenomenal era of championship contending. This time around, Orlando is looking to play the role of spoiler in hopes of avoiding yet another conclusion to a great multiple-year run. A gasp to avoid hitting another reset button. Last season, injuries to guys like Jameer, Redick, Jason Richardson, and Brandon Bass opened the door for Atlanta to send us packing way too soon.

2011-2012 has just been ridiculously unlucky on an entirely different scale. The Dwight Howard chaos that's been ongoing since the summer, has finally now shifted to Superman's having a herniated disc and missing the postseason. Giving more opportunity for national media bashing. Otis Smith's impending firing (We're still waiting, Devos family) after a steady decline from the '09 Finals trip. For God's sake, Otis, you don't have to accept every single interview request. Bob Vander Weide's humiliating resignation. Stan Van Gundy's stress levels causing him to have a minor heart attack and eventually spilling the beans of Dwight's demand to have him canned.

Glen Davis had to adjust to a new team only to hit a few slumps, get booed by fans, have his grandmother and father die, get suspended, play like an All-Star as a starter, dealing with a sprained knee heading into Game 1, and somehow ending up being the face of roster while delivering the Fan Appreciation Night speech to the Amway Center patrons. Jason Richardson has been injured and playing the worst basketball of his professional career. Jameer Nelson is a walking concussion that makes hockey and football players squeamish. Ryan Anderson has been hurt and is currently shooting terribly. Hedo Turkoglu is back as the Phantom of the Pizza, as Turkey Dance would prefer to give away his daughter than wear the mask he's currently sporting. Chris Duhon is better than '10-'11, but still terrifies every Magic fan whenever he puts the ball on the court or even contemplates passing. Duhon, the Magic's player representative who helped negotiate the new CBA, was suspended for missing practice time. 

That's just on-the-court personnel. FSN and SUN Sports television play-by-play man Matt Guokas has had numerous surgeries. Pat Williams, one of the most important Magic figures in the franchise's history, is continuing his strenuous battle with cancer. Even AM 580 WDBO radio announcer Richie Adubato has sat out with illnesses such as laryngitis. This is absolutely astounding. Good news though, we're not going to fold. We could have folded a month ago. Nope. Last week. Nope. The fighting spirit in everyone and the unbelievable optimism makes things hard not to show faith in these guys. 

Guys like Ish Smith, DeAndre Liggins (Inactive going into Game 1), Earl Clark, Von Wafer, Daniel Orton, and now Justin Harper have had bright spots and legitimate playing time opportunities at some point in this 2nd half of the season. SVG will have to seriously contemplate giving these guys postseason burn. Our starting lineup lacks the ridiculously spry athleticism that those young guns provide. Stan needs to be ready to get risky when a shake-up becomes an obvious need. This is Orlando's sixth straight season of reaching the playoffs, and the 5th straight in the Stan Van Gundy era. 

This team seriously has no postseason pressure. Outsiders' false over-dramatization of our franchise's supposed locker room panicking these past few weeks is laughable when the ESPNs and NBATVs 'analyze' this series. It all begins in Indianapolis, Saturday night at 7 p.m. EST. For now, everything is calm and everyone is apparently loose according to Magic beat writers. I believe them. I also believe that for various reasons, not necessarily monetary, several individual Magic men have a lot riding on superb postseason performances. No one outside of Orlando is expecting anything from the Magic. That's fine by me. Historically, SVG teams do damn well flying under the radar. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Orlando: Time to Truly Back SVG & This Roster

See what I did there with 'back'? It seems like every time I have a long blogging hiatus, something terrible occurs with this franchise. I'll cut it out. I don't care if the Magic lose to both the Bobcats and Grizzlies these next 2 days and we end up facing the Heat in the postseason, you have to continue to admire the fight that this roster and coaching staff have displayed despite all the injuries the entire Dwight saga. We will most likely find ourselves in the 6th seed. Win percentage wise, it's the worst season in Stan Van Gundy's Magic coaching career. Character and legendary one-liner wise, it might be his best (aside from the whole minor heart attack thing). SVG has a semi-decent chance of somehow surviving getting into a public-eye dispute with a superstar franchise player. That's extremely rare in American basketball.

Dwight Howard went from god to goat in a few weeks really after everyone in Central Florida wanted to throw D12 a parade for utilizing his opt-in. I'm not going to bash Howard, but it's excruciatingly difficult to defend anything he's done since the Lockout ended. This has been crazier than the LeBron, 'Melo, Deron Williams sagas combined. Dwight is in *Profanity Alert* 'Stay Schemin'' mode it appears with the way the media continues to beg Superman to bolt the City Beautiful. Ping's got that new job with ESPN locked up if the mothership continues to eat up all the filthy bad rumors coming out of his mouth. How are the golf courses up in Bristol? I won't worry about D12 and his future in pinstripes until our postseason ends. No Schmitz, we still don't want Bynum's shaky knees. No Bianchi, stop trying to demean and replace 'We All We Got'. Are folks seriously going to have a fit over Dwight not being in Orlando for 3 weeks, or not travelling with the team? The man has a career-threatening back injury that requires rehab close to the doctor that did the surgery on his herniated disc. Let's be honest, the team doesn't really need more distractions than what they've endured up to this point. A few time zones of separation could do both parties well. 

Stan may be over-critical of our current abhorrent defense and young guys, but don't confuse those remarks with the fact that Van Gundy is clearly making the best of this situation. He's also a sly motivator. There's a reason why a good chunk of the locker room would much rather have Van Gundy over Dwight. After all, we are missing a multiple-time winning Defensive Player of the Year and yet have shown amazing competitiveness. Statistically, and just by looking at it, the offense overall has been better this season without Dwight. That's a little odd, but Stan has the system in place that makes Ryno and Big Baby paint beasts (even Earl Clark and Daniel Orton in small spirts) when they want to be. SVG also knows that if we can just learn from the lessons of this season in regards to finishing out quarters, halves, and games, we'd have the 3rd seed with ease. Now one hopes it all comes together in the postseason. We've blown lead after lead, been blowout at home and on the road a few times. Injuries and illnesses (drunk dialing isn't one of them) have been rampant among even the non-player personnel. I'm 90% certain the 'El Magic' jerseys were burned to a crisp weeks ago. We suck on national television. We can't buy an overtime victory. It's just been issue after issue. You can either fold or barrel on. Well, we're pushing through it up to this point. The second game of a back-to-back in Denver doesn't count. Especially when you lose Jameer 2 minutes into the contest. 

Even though we are playing what appears to be the worst team in NBA history on Wednesday. It's no gimme. Not as long as Amway Center ticket holders and Magic fans everywhere continue to abandon ship. Myself and other diehard local fans in the area are benefiting thanks to cheap tickets. After all, Orlando seems to continue to lose a player every week to injury. There are spots of instability throughout the franchise. Still, what's this 'dead men walking' B.S.? WE'RE IN THE PLAYOFFS! I'm sorry if there's no Dwight around, but this is still a basketball team that technically has a chance to win an NBA championship. If you want to work the trade machine and NBA Draft mock-ups in the month of May, go for it. But you're wasting your time when you can savor this 'Heart & Hustle' part 2 experience. Our franchise is hosting a Fan Appreciation Night as a massive thank you to the community for enduring this media-injury-Dwight-chaotic monster for 5-6 months. The least we can do is continue to fuel the drive and passion that has kept the ship afloat. 

I really do expect Hedo Turkoglu to be back for Game 1 this weekend. It may do him and our bench some well if he's the floor general (especially with Chris Duhon out there). He'll be wearing a Gino's brand pizza mask to protect his surgically repaired cheek. Turk may be Mr. Inconsistent, but before he got sidelined, Hedo actually put together 3 solid games. Now, life will be different without Dwight and some rust. It's still very difficult to count Turkey Dance out in the playoffs. Jameer needs his veteran buddy to help carry the inexperienced crew. Also, I still don't have any faith in J-Rich doing much at small forward (or his normal SG position for that matter). Redick and Ryno can't throw up playoff duds. Especially Mr. Anderson who is fighting for big boy money in the offseason.

'We All We Got' isn't just a locker room slogan. It applies to the small percentage of us fans that still believe that Orlando can win a playoff game, or hell a series for that matter in the coming week. I'll go into more depth about the rest of the roster once we know who our playoff opponent will be. But don't you dare count out any team that gives a damn, can be dangerous from 3-point range, and has the capabilities of limiting turnovers. Oh, and who has a top 5 basketball coach that happens to be the franchise's best ever. Do yourselves a favor, Orlando. One way or another, find a way to enjoy the last regular season home game. Who knows what the state of the team will be 12 months from now.