You can watch paint dry, or you could watch every single second of this series. OK, that’s a little harsh. But the star power that this series would have had is gone with Dwight Howard out with season-ending back surgery, and you have to wonder whether the Magic are kicking themselves for not trading him to the Lakers when they had the chance. It has been a soap opera season for the Magic, and soap operas usually have tragic ends, no? Here are five things to watch for in the first-round playoff series between the Indiana Pacers and the Orlando Magic:
- THE DWIGHT HOWARD FACTOR: Like him or not, Dwight Howard has been the leader, heart and soul of the Magic in his eight-year tenure with the team. Orlando has made the playoffs for six consecutive seasons thanks to Howard, but this will be the first time the team will be in the playoffs without its franchise player. There is simply no way to replace the man that leads the team in just about every statistical figure that doesn’t involve outside shooting, and trying to adjust without him in the playoffs will be a daunting task. To put it in colder terms, Orlando is not a playoff team without Superman. In 12 games without the three-time defensive player of the year, the team has gone 4-8 while scoring just 95.9 points and allowing 98.7 points.
- THE 3-POINT SHOOTING FACTOR: Simply put, Orlando is a 3-point shooting team, and they are the best in the business because of the attention Howard attracts in the low post, freeing players on the perimeter. They lead the league in attempts (27.1) and makes (10.2) by a wide margin and convert 37.7 percent of them, good for third-best in the league. If they catch fire from beyond the arc, anything can happen. The problem for them will be dealing with a Pacers defense that held opponents to just 43.4 percent shooting. The key will lie with Jameer Nelson – the longest tenured Magic player – who will have to do a bulk of the creating due to a lack of reliable post presence to make defenses collapse. Since getting off to an ineffective start, Nelson has improved his scoring and assists in every month, topping out at 15.3 points and seven assists in April.
- THE POWER FORWARD FACTOR: With Howard out of the picture, Ryan Anderson may be the best scoring option for the Magic by default, especially with Glen Davis’ status in doubt for at least the first game due to a sprained ankle. How Anderson plays against David West could set the tone for a Magic team that is desperately in need of a number one option. For Indiana, West will have to provide the type of post presence at the power forward position the team sorely lacked last season. Though far removed from his All-Star days after going through microfracture surgery, West is still effective and has played his best basketball in the month of April, averaging 15.2 points on 54.6 percent shooting. If he puts Anderson in foul trouble, Orlando’s backups are weak.
- THE TALENT FACTOR: With a combination of youth, size and athleticism, the Pacers simply have more talent than the Magic from top to bottom. There is not a single matchup advantage at any given position for Orlando, though the play of Nelson against George Hill could be a toss-up. The athletic ability of Danny Granger and Paul George provides a big edge over an aging Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu. Indiana is top three in the league in both getting to the free throw line (26.1), and converting them (78.3%). Without a defensive presence to stop them from attacking the basket, they could live at the foul line in this series.
- THE ROY HIBBERT FACTOR: In terms of sheer size, there may not be a bigger team than the Pacers in the league. Four of the starting players are at least 6’8” or taller, topped by the 7’2” Roy Hibbert. They were top five in the league this season in rebounds per game and third in total rebounds, led by Hibbert’s 8.8. Without Howard’s league-leading 14.5 rebounds, the Pacers may see plenty of second-chance opportunities. If Hibbert can control the paint, the Magic will have a tough time staying competitive. He recorded 21 double-doubles this season, and the team won 17 of those contests.
SHERIDAN: Pacers in 4.
HUBBARD: Pacers in 5.
HEISLER: Pacers in 5.
BERNUCCA: Pacers in 4.
HAMILTON: Pacers in 5.
PERKINS: Pacers in 5.
ZAGORIA: Pacers in 6.
PARK: Pacers in 4.
For the complete first-round NBA playoff schedule, click here.
OTHER SERIES PREVIEWS AND PREDICTIONS