Atlanta Hawks at Orlando Magic
Time: 5 PM CT (NBA LP)
Spread: ORL -1
Betting odds c/o Pincle
The Orlando Magic have become one of the NBA’s most improved teams at 15-11 and are looking very much like it is ready to crash the postseason for the first time since the departure of once-franchise player Dwight Howard.
The visiting Atlanta Hawks made it to the Conference Finals but have been pretty mediocre this season at 16-12. The Hawks will face the Magic at the Amway Center where Orlando is 9-4 this season and will be one-point favorites in the game.
The Magic have not made a huge number of changes to its roster, but what has changed is the team philosophy and play under first year coach Scott Skiles. Skiles has instilled a defensive culture in the Magic, and Orlando has responded, ranking in the top-5 in opponent’s field goal percentage while even coaxing good defense out of the likes of Channing Frye and Andrew Nicholson, both of whom have played large roles for Orlando this season.
The biggest change perhaps offensively has been the balance that the Magic have struck this season. Its leading scorer Nikola Vucevic is averaging 15.9 points per game, down about three points from what he averaged last year.
Vucevic has been quietly very efficient and is still one of the better offensive centers in the league, diminished role notwithstanding. Accenting his scoring has been an increase in efficiency from a guy whose name was hardly synonymous with such prior to this season: Tobias Harris.
Harris has vacillated between the two forward slots, but he has been taking less threes and playing a more mid-range game than seen in season’s past. He is one of five Magic players averaging double figures at 14.6 points per game. Evan Fournier started the season on fire, but he has seen his role and numbers decrease in the last few weeks for Orlando.
Since the Magic moved combo guard Victor Oladipo to a sixth man role, the team is 10-4, but Fournier has hardly been the reason why. He nearly went scoreless in Orlando’s most recent victory over Portland, and the talented Frenchman is shooting just 33 percent from the floor over his past five games. He also dislocated his finger in the Portland contest, though he is expected to play tonight against the Hawks.
Oladipo seems to be loving and thriving in his role as sixth man. Now, Victor has been able to gauge the game and it seems to have resulted in him playing more under-control basketball. Oladipo is averaging 13.8 points per game this season, but his biggest contributions have come in teaming up with Elfrid Payton (likely to play with an ankle injury) to force turnovers.
Oladipo is also tied for second on the team in blocks with 0.88 per game, which combined with his steals helps him force over two turnovers a game—directly. What is not accounted for here is the number of plays he and Payton force late shot clock heaves and team turnovers by the opposition. Payton may not have improved his jump shot much (despite attempts to), but his play has been instrumental in Orlando getting out on the fast break and scoring in transition.
Skiles has this team buying into a tough team-defensive concept, and the result has been a lot of easier buckets for a young team desperate to get out on the break.
The Magic have utilized a deep nine-man rotation, which has kind of left rookie Mario Hezonja out in the cold. He was utilized as a backup point guard effectively prior to the Portland game in which he did not even see court time. It was perplexing in light of the fact that in the wins over Charlotte and Brooklyn the Croatian shot 7 of 10 from the floor with two assists (and three turnovers).
Time may be hard to come by for Hezonja, as he is playing behind Orlando’s best two offensive players and now has Oladipo coming off the bench to sometimes run the point. Magic fans are clamoring to see Mario play more, but the team is winning. Skiles undoubtedly is hesitant to shake up the good chemistry his team is playing with, even if it means the No. 5 overall pick from this year’s draft does not see big minutes.
The Hawks won 60 games last year but have hardly appeared to be the same club this season, despite returning most of its core players, save DeMarre Carroll who signed with the Toronto Raptors over the offseason. The Hawks have won its past two games over the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, but prior to those wins the team had lost three straight.
The re-signed Paul Millsap has been nothing short of brilliant for Atlanta though. The 6’8” power forward is averaging 18.2 points, 8.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.97 blocks/steals per game while posting a team-high PER of 23.4. Al Horford has complemented him well, but outside of Millsap, Horford and point guard Jeff Teague (questionable with an ankle injury), the Hawks are struggling to get production elsewhere.
Swingman Kent Bazemore has proven to be a good signing and is playing good ball at the 3-spot, but the Hawks may be just starting to gather steam. The rotation is deep and the Hawks are still getting good play from All-Star Kyle Korver (how weird does that feel to say?), but it will need to re-establish its defensive identity to knock of a tough Magic team at home.
It is still early in the season, though, and few doubt that the Hawks will at least return to the postseason, while perhaps reaching the Conference Finals will be very much in play by that juncture of the season. The Hawks may have been swept in last year’s Conference Finals, but that was due to Carroll going down and LeBron James proceeding to go nuts.
With small forward Thabo Sefolosha back in the fold (he was beaten by cops before the postseason last year), the Hawks will hope he can be the defensive stopper necessary to get to the Finals this year. But at 16-12 in a much tougher Eastern Conference, the first step will be just getting there again.