The stats pretty much speak for themselves. Orlando shoots about 26 three-pointers per game, win or lose. In their wins, they shoot over 40.5% from deep, in their losses, 31.5%. This is why every single talking head (outside of Avery Johnson) has picked the Magic to win the series, this is also why I believe they are coming into the playoffs extremely vulnerable. Their reliance on the three is a flaw in the construction of their roster, not a brilliant coaching move by the lesser Van Gundy, and I think it will be why the Sixers can and will make a series out of this first round matchup.
Orlando has the best big man in the East, and the best center in the league. Dwight Howard will most-likely win defensive player of the year honors this season, and he deserves it. It's not his fault that Stan hasn't figured out how to use this giant advantage on the other side of the floor.
Dwight's numbers are pretty much consistent across the board in Magic wins and losses. Instead of being a dominant force that powers them to wins, he's become the baseline. Orlando has lost games Howard thoroughly dominated (39 points against Toronto, a 6-points loss. 21 points, 20 boards against Indy, a 5-point loss. 29 points, 19 boards at home against Portland, a 7-point loss), and won games where he stunk up the joint (4 points, 3 rebounds, 6 fouls in a road win @ Charlotte. 12 points on 4/15 shooting in a 20-point win over the Hornets).
In a Q&A I did with Orlando Magic Daily, their first question for me was "What can the Sixers do to stop Dwight Howard?" My answer was pretty much nothing, and I wasn't really worried about it. Tony DiLeo needs to put Sam Dalembert on an island for as long as Sammy can stay in the game, then Theo Ratliff should be on an island. They need to guard Dwight Howard one on one and dare Van Gundy to go to that matchup all night long. I don't believe Stan will do it. I think the three ball is so thoroughly ingrained in their game plan that he'll ignore the matchup. Even if he doesn't, Howard hasn't proven to me that he's capable of carrying the offense for entire games. He's going to get his 20 points, but they aren't going to come in back-to-the-basket, low post situations. They're going to come off lobs, offensive boards and transition dunks. Howard is not Shaq in his prime, honestly, his game is probably closer to Mutumbo's than Shaq's.
He will change the game on defense, but if Tony DiLeo is losing sleep worrying about how to stop Howard's offense, he's wasting his time.
Instead, the Sixers need to be concentrating on limiting open looks at three. That's where Orlando wins and loses their games, which has obviously been a thorn in their side all year long.
How can they do it? How can they completely reverse the trend we've painfully watch all year long? I'm not really sure they can. In the half-court offense, Van Gundy will use all different kinds of pick and roll situations to spring shooters, he'll try to use Alston's dribble penetration. He'll try to bait the Sixers into doubling the post. Working in their favor is Orlando's lack of athleticism on the outside. Alston is quick, and keeping him out of the paint will be a priority, but he's no Jameer Nelson. If Nelson hadn't been lost for the season, this series would probably be a foregone conclusion, but Rafer Alston does not scare me. The Sixers can handle him without over-helping and sucking into the lane. He's far from an elite finisher once he gets in there and he isn't that quick.
It's not like we're talking about Rondo or Derrick Rose here, I think Green, Lou and Miller can handle Alston's quickness at this point of his career and if Alston isn't the guy driving the ball into the lane, who will? Hedo has sneaky quickness, but Iguodala has to be able to stick with him. Lee and Rashard Lewis aren't exactly slasher types. Coming off the bench you have Pietrus, who loves the jumper, and the fleet-footed Redick. Does Lue scare you off the dribble? How about Anthony Johnson?
The Sixers should be able to contain the dribble penetration that's killed them so many times this season. Against the high pick and roll, I'm hoping they'll decide to go under screens when it's Howard, and switch if it's one of the other players. I know we're going to see aggressive doubles when Reggie's in there, and I don't like that one bit. They're basically doubling the worst offensive player on the floor and allowing Lee, Lewis, Hedo and Howard to play 4 on three. That's a recipe for disaster.
Those are two keys for limiting the three-point damage, and I'm hoping we'll see smart, aggressive defense against Orlando's standard half-court sets, but the anti-three intiative cannot stop there. Threes that happen in the flow of offense hurt you, but they don't kill. The thing that absolutely takes your breath away are the dagger threes off offensive rebounds and out on the break. Whenever Orlando has a numbers advantage, Lewis will look to spot up for a three. Transition defense has to be about two things, stopping the ball and finding the shooter. We can't have three defenders running back to protect the hoop, it's more important that we get a hand in the shooter's face.
My final key for stopping the three is defensive rebounding. The Sixers have an extraordinary athletic advantage at both the three and the four. They don't need to cheat on long shots to beat their men down the floor, it's kind of like Randy Moss running a fly pattern, if he's even with the corner, he beat him. Long shots turn into long rebounds, meaning when a shot goes up, 5 Sixers need to put a body on a man. We can't have Willie Green standing on the perimeter with his hands on his hips. We can't have Thad leaking out. We need every Sixer on the floor to make sure they secure that defensive rebound. There is nothing more demoralizing than playing 20+ seconds of solid defense only to watch an offensive rebound turn into a wide-open three.
Dwight Howard is going to get his fair share of offensive rebounds, there's no way you're going to completely shut him down. It's vitally important that the Sixers hold on their men when shots go up so they can not only secure the ball, but so that when Orlando does come up with an offensive board, it doesn't turn into three points right away. The Sixers absolutely do not need to cheat to run.
If you're into bullets, here you go. This is how the Sixers can flip Orlando's infatuation with the three on it's head.
- Never double Dwight Howard
- Limit dribble penetration, don't over-help.
- Force Alston to be the guy to score the ball on screen and roll situations
- Find the shooters on the break
- Don't leak out on shots, make sure the defensive rebound is secured first
How well Philadelphia performs in these areas will decide whether they win or lose. Best center in the league and the key to the game against Orlando is how well you defend a 36% shot. That's the flaw and until the balance shifts to "How can you possibly stop Dwight Howard?" Orlando is not a real contender. I don't care how many regular season games they win.