I'm trying to come up with a statistical indicator to favor Atlanta, and I'm drawing a blank. Orlando has home-court advantage, led the NBA in point differential and crushed Charlotte in four games in the first round despite having "Foul On You" nailed to the bench for all but 26.5 minutes a game. Meanwhile, the Hawks did little to encourage supporters by struggling past an injury-depleted Milwaukee squad in Round 1.
Moreover, the head-to-head history over the past two years is pretty one-sided. Atlanta won at Orlando on opening day of the 2008-09 season by 14 points, but since then it has been all Orlando. The Magic have won six of the past seven games, including wins by 17, 18, 32 and 34. Atlanta's only win in that span was by two points at the buzzer.
As a result, all 10 of our experts have the Magic winning, and only Chad Ford has the series going the distance. The glass-barely-wet view for Atlantans is that at least they aren't down 1-0 yet, unlike the Jazz and Celtics. I would strongly suggest the Hawks win the opener Tuesday, especially since that's probably their best shot to steal one given the rust Orlando should have from an eight-day layoff.
And Hollinger makes this point in the context of an article in which he describes the fact that teams with the homecourt advantage have a terrific record in the second round of the playoffs. So, with pretty much every factor pointing to a Magic victory, Mark Bradley is predicting glory:
My first inclination was to take Magic in six, but something about this matchup leads me to think it’ll go the distance. And where would the weight of expectation in such a Game 7 fall? Not on the Hawks.
The Milwaukee series was strange: The Hawks went from too loose to too tight to almost gone. But they made it through, and they see real opportunity in Round 2. So do I. Hawks in seven.
Bradley, who normally has a good sense for basketball match-ups, does not make a compelling case. His argument is that the Hawks can defend Dwight Howard without doubling him because Al Horford is an above-average big man. However, Bradley completely misses why Howard is a great player. Howard has a negligible offensive game. The Magic didn't have the second-best record in the NBA because of Howard's 18.3 points per game; they had it because they are the best defensive team in basketball and Howard's shot-blocking and rebounding are the largest reason why. Horford's skill is not going to prevent Howard from owning the glass or stopping the Hawks from scoring in the lane. Moreover, Orlando's success at shooting the three doesn't come only from opponents doubling Howard in the post, as evidenced by Howard's meager 1.8 assists per game and his reputation as a poor passer. Orlando gets open threes because they run a good offense, they have multiple threats, and they have a point guard who can find shooters. Who thinks that Mike Bibby can keep Jameer Nelson out of the lane? Right.
If Horford's presence gave the Hawks a match-up advantage against the Magic, then why have our friends in Orlando owned us for the past two seasons? Methinks Bradley is succumbing to his tendency to be too positive about the local teams. The Hawks' appearance in the Eastern Finals is going to go right next to the Braves' 2008 division title and Georgia's 2008 national title on the mantelpiece.
Two other thoughts on the local professional basketball collective:
1. With LeBron looking gimpy and the Lakers looking old, the stakes for the Hawks have gone up if they can somehow win this series. An upset over the Magic and "why not us?" will be a legitimate sentiment.
2. I still feel conflicted on the Hawks' rally against the Bucks. I'll freely admit that I gave them little chance to stave off elimination last Friday night. Instead, the team responded with two comfortable wins. The Hawks showed some serious backbone in coming back from what looked like a season-crushing loss in Game Five. Full marks to the team for doing so. On the other hand, if they were capable of beating the Bucks with such ease, then how the hell did they allow themselves to be pushed to the brink in the first place? Did Milwaukee come back to earth and give the Hawks the space to rise from the grave? Is this team capable of being great when they focus, thus making their wandering eye the reason why they aren't a true title contender?