The NBA playoffs begin in just more than two weeks, and the identity of the Orlando Magics first-round opponent is still very much up in the air. However, it is a near certainty that the Magic will play one of three teams in the first round: Atlanta, Boston or Indiana.
With eight games remaining in the shortened season, the Magic, the Hawks and the Celtics all have the same record of 34-24, as of Thursday. That trio is tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference, two games behind the Indiana Pacers. There is sure to be some shuffling in the standings, but when the dust settles, look for the 3-6 spots in the east to be occupied by these four teams in some fashion.
As Magic fans can tell you, the NBA playoffs are all about matchups. Last year the Magic had a better team, record-wise, than the Hawks. They eight more games than Atlanta in the regular season. But the Hawks used matchup advantages in the playoffs to beat Orlando 4-2 in the first round.
So, how do the Magic match up against the three likely first-round opponents this year? Lets take a look, starting with those pesky
Not much has changed since last season when it comes to how well Orlando has fared against Atlanta on the court. The Hawks are 2-0 against the Magic this season. Orlando has averaged just 82.5 points per game, shooting a meager 40 percent from the floor and only 28.5 percent on 3-pointers in the two losses.
Here is the problem for the Magic: The Hawks are long on the wings. They switch on all pick-and-rolls, and Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams and Josh Smith can all guard Orlandos 3-point shooters.
On the inside, Jason Collins and Zaza Pachulia are big, long, and experienced, and know how to defend Dwight Howard. The Magic can overcome these disadvantages with smart play and good execution, but clearly, Orlando would have its hands full in a repeat first-round series with Atlanta.
The Celtics present many of the same problems as the Hawks. They are long and athletic on the wing, which allows them the ability to switch pick-and-rolls (a bread-and-butter play for the Magic). The Celtics are also 2-0 against the Magic this season, holding Orlando to 69.5 points per game on 31.9 percent shooting (27.3 percent on 3-pointers). And the Celts won both games without point guard Rajon Rondo.
On the positive side for Orlando, Dwight Howard should have a big advantage at the center position. Celtics veteran Jermaine ONeal is out for the season with a wrist injury. The only true center on the Boston roster is Greg Stiemsma, a rookie. That means Kevin Garnett would play a lot of center against Howard. As great a defender as Garnett is, and he has played Howard very well in short stints in recent years, in a best-of-seven series, Dwight could wear down the 35-year-old and gain the advantage.
In a possible series against Indiana, matchups seem to favor the Magic. They were 3-1 against the Pacers this season, and they are 6-1 over the past two seasons. Dwight Howard rules the middle against Roy Hibbert this season. Howard averaged 23.8 pts on 68.5 percent shooting with 10.8 rebounds per game, and Hibbert averaged 10.8 pts on 41.9 percent shooting and 6.5 rebounds.
Ryan Anderson and J.J. Redick are a combined 18-35 from 3-point range in the four games this year, 27-52 (51.9 percent) the past two years.
And defensively, over the past two seasons, the Magic have held the Pacers to 88.6 points per game on 40.5 percent shooting, 26.4 percent on 3-pointers.
Clearly, in terms of recent history and matchups, among likely first-round opponents, Orlando has fared best against Indiana. But Friday night, the Magic face Atlanta at home, and next Wednesday they play a key game at Boston. Keep an eye on both games. They present two opportunities for the Magic to turn the momentum against teams they may face again in the postseason.