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Magic Vs. Hawks: Atlanta's Offense Needs Some Help

If the Atlanta Hawks are to defeat the Orlando Magic in their first-round playoff matchup, they'll have to find some source of consistent offense. While it appears as though they have Orlando pegged defensively, the Magic won Game 2 despite shooting 34.6 percent and committing 16 turnovers due to their own great defense, which held the Hawks to 39.5 percent shooting. In other words, Orlando has proven it can win in this series despite playing poorly offensively.

In the first two games of this series, only Jamal Crawford and Josh Smith have consistently come through at the offensive end. While it's true that those two represent twice the number of reliable Magic offensive players so far (Dwight Howard is averaging 39.5 points on 71.4 percent shooting from the field; his teammates' field-goal percentages look more like batting averages), it's also fair to question if they can keep it up.

Let's start with Crawford. The veteran shoot-first guard is averaging 24 points in 31 minutes, and doing most of his damage from three-point range; he's 7-of-12 (58.3 percent) from deep and 8-of-19 (42.1 percent) on twos. Clearly, he's going to have to keep hitting from the outside to stay useful.

In the regular season, he put together only two streaks of games in which he made at least three three-pointers, something he's done to start the playoffs: from Jan. 4-12, he went 14-of-29 on threes. Later, from Feb. 23-25, he had a three-game stretch in which he shot 10-of-21 beyond the arc.

Those two, brief stretches of hot three-point shooting boosted his season three-point percentage to 34.1--good enough, depending on whom you ask, but still below league average. Take those hot streaks away, and he stands at 31.8 percent on the year. His history this season suggests he may be able to stay hot for another game or two, but it's more likely that he'll regress to his below-average ways from the outside.

Smith is a different story. Sliding from power forward to small forward in order to accommodate Jason Collins' shift to the starting lineup, he's matched up against Hedo Turkoglu, and Orlando's crafty veteran simply doesn't have the speed and quickness necessary to stay in front of him. As a result, Smith ranks third on the team in playoff scoring, putting in 16 points per game in just 34 minutes. And unlike Crawford, he's doing most of his damage at the rim area. Though Smith has embraced the three-pointer this season once again, he's managed to limit himself to just six triple tries in this series, preferring instead to take Turkoglu off the dribble. It's working. Smith has made 60 percent of his two-point baskets in this series.

Joe Johnson and Al Horford, the Hawks' other two scoring threats, have had more uneven series than Crawford or Smith. Johnson scored 25 in Game 1, shooting 9-of-16 from the floor as Jason Richardson struggled to stay in front of him. But in Game 2, Orlando's defense limited the Hawks' highest-paid player to 14 points on 6-of-15 shooting. And while baskets count no matter how they're scored, or when, it's worth noting that three of his six field goals in that game came on desperation shots just before the shot-clock expired that nonetheless found the bottom of the net: a banked-in long two pointer after Richardson blocked his first attempt, plus two deep three-pointers off broken plays. Indeed, Johnson could just as easily have shot 3-of-15 for 6 points in Game 2. For Atlanta to really get it going, he'll need to work harder to find better shot attempts.

Horford hasn't necessarily done anything wrong offensively, though his 44 percent shooting mark is troublesome. He didn't accomplish much in Game 2, but that's almost entirely because coach Larry Drew benched him for the final 21:50 of the first half due to his picking up two early fouls. As a result, the former Florida Gator played just 26 minutes, and though he scored 10 points, he needed 11 shot attempts and four free-throw attempts to get them. He needs to score more efficiently than that to make a positive impact.

Horford is arguably the Hawks' best player, yet he routinely loses shot attempts to Crawford, Johnson, and Smith, to varying degrees. And with Howard patrolling the lane defensively, he's unlikely to get many post-up chances. While Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson will guard Horford individually, the fact that Howard himself has no individual defensive responsibilities--would you pay any attention to Collins at the offensive end?--frees the league's three-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year to freelance as a help defender at-large. Should Horford lose Bass or Anderson with a post move, Howard will be there to alter Horford's eventual offering.

Horford does more than merely back people down in the post, however; he's also an excellent jump-shooter, which is where he can hurt the Magic most. Involving him in pick-and-pop plays against Bass and Anderson should free him for those long two-pointers he takes, and makes, so often, as Orlando's young power forwards still have difficulty defending the perimeter.

As the series resumes Friday night in Atlanta for Game 3, the ideal for which the Hawks ought to strive is to get at least two of their four main offensive cogs hot early, both to give the players a rhythm and to build a sizable lead. Then, if the Hawks have the advantage heading into the fourth period, they can afford to play Collins so he can defend Howard. But if they're trailing, they'll have to use a more offensively minded lineup, which keeps Collins at the end of the bench.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.