The Atlanta Hawks fell by 25 points in Tuesday night's effort to close out their series against the Orlando Magic, but have another chance to win Thursday night when they host Orlando at Philips Arena for Game 6. Atlanta fell behind big, 26-13, in the first quarter of Game 5 and never recovered despite Dwight Howard picking up two fouls in the opening six minutes.
Orlando prevailed for a number of reasons, including the 11 points J.J. Redick scored once Howard left the game, the surprising ineffectiveness of the Hawks' Jamal Crawford and Joe Johnson (13 points, 4-of-20 shooting combined), and its ability to avoid turnovers (just 6 all game).
But an overlooked part of the Magic's success Tuesday night is their more varied offensive approach: instead of giving the ball to Howard in the post and having him go to work individually, the team ran more motion-based plays designed to get everyone involved, and to keep the Hawks' defense guessing. Indeed, the Magic ran 44 pick-and-roll plays in Game 5, according to Synergy Sports Technology, compared to just 11 post-ups. Although we can attribute some of that disparity to Howard's playing only 29 minutes, the play-calling is nonetheless indicative of the Magic's new, more creative attack.
The Synergy data also reflect Orlando's biggest defensive adjustment: bringing Howard over to shade the strong side of the floor whenever Crawford or Johnson caught the ball which enabled whoever was guarding those two to defend closer and more aggressively while also deterring their dribble penetration. Forcing the ball out of the hands of Atlanta's top wing scorers had a trickle-down effect, resulting in the Hawks' secondary players having more spot-up opportunities. Due to the Magic's tweaked defense, Atlanta finished just 15 plays with an isolation on Tuesday night, a 37.5 percent decrease from the 24 it ran in its Game 4 victory.
The Hawks can adjust to these changes, of course, and will have the home crowd behind them. It's also unlikely that the turnover-prone Magic will be able to take care of the ball as well as they did in Game 5, which will reduce their opportunities on offense and feed the Hawks' transition game. For all the spin about the Hawks, not the Magic, feeling the pressure Thursday night, this fact remains: Orlando cannot afford to lose again in this series. For this reason, Atlanta still has an edge, and can leverage it Thursday.