On paper, the Pacers ought to steamroll the Howard-less Magic, and this is what a lot of "experts" are predicting. But I am giving the Magic slightly more credit and believe it will be a hard fought series where few wins will come easy. In the end, I believe the absence of Howard will be too much for the Magic to overcome and the Pacers will prevail in 5.
Here are the questions I asked the Orlando Magic Daily about the series. Check out my responses to their questions here.
1) Let's get this out of the way first. As an Orlando fan, how do you feel about the Dwight Howard fiasco? Who is the blame in all of this?
That is a tough one to answer. I think there is a lot of blame to go around this time around. The Magic have mismanaged their relationship with Howard and Howard has mismanaged his relationship with the Magic and the fans. Orlando has clearly made the decision to go all-in with Howard and do whatever it takes to keep him. That might be a good or a bad thing. Either way, it probably was not the right thing to do.
I always got the sense that Howard has nothing but love for Orlando and its fans. His issue was always with the organization not getting done what he wanted and taking the team out of title contention. I think Orlando fans would have been OK with that. But since then, Howard has just mismanaged his relationships with the media, the fans, teammates and the organization. It is honestly kind of tough to see how this relationship gets mended. Winning will do that, and I think the franchise is committed to doing whatever it takes to keep Howard, for better or worse.
Like most Magic fans, I just want this to end one way or the other. You can't move forward until that happens.
2) With Dwight gone, what are the realistic expectations for this team? Can they still surprise people or are fans already looking forward to what awaits them next season?
Another good question. This definitely is not the same team without Dwight Howard. They are lacking their offensive and defensive linchpin. I think what the Magic realistically want is a respectable showing. This team will play hard, but it has a lot to overcome. This is not the most talented team outside of Dwight Howard and that has shown in the team's uneven play since Howard's injury. If this team gets hot, it can still beat just about anybody (by outscoring them, mind you) but when this team is cold, it is a team that could barely break 80 or 90. That is how things go. So a respectable showing in the first round would be a nice step for this franchise.
I think the fans of Orlando want to get behind this team. So if the team comes out strong, a lot of people will begin to believe. That will be really key. Orlando has to have a good Game One if the team wants a chance in this series. If the Magic get discouraged early on, it could be a long series. It would be nice to have something to cheer for and not think about all the uncertainty this summer.
3) Which Magic players do you envisage stepping up the most in this first round series? Who can give the Pacers the most match-up difficulties?
I think Jameer Nelson is going to have a decently big series. The Magic are going to be leaning on their co-captain to perform and carry the team on his shoulders throughout the series. He has a tough matchup going up against the speedy Darren Collison, and Nelson may struggle defensively. But Nelson has always found a way to step up in the Playoffs. He is going to have to do this again in this series to give the Magic a chance. He is the team's best creator and scorer. Since Howard's injury, Nelson has seen his assists go up too. Orlando is relying more and more on him and that has to continue.
The biggest matchup difficulty for Indiana is going to be figuring out what to do with Ryan Anderson. Really, few teams have figured out the best way to defend Anderson. He sort of disappeared in last year's Playoffs and against athletic 4s who can get out to the 3-point line and contest his 3-pointers. But he does not need a whole lot of space to get shots off and score a ton of points in a hurry. He has had a really great season and even without Dwight Howard he has scored a bunch. If Anderson is able to get his shot going, things could get very interesting. The thing to watch out for most though is Anderson's ability to get to the offensive glass and grab offensive rebounds. He is a very sneaky offensive rebounder and uses this ability to get points when his shot is not falling. Indiana has to make sure they have an eye on him at all times.
4) The Pacers have a balanced offense where any of five or six players could lead the scoring on any given night. Who or what will be the focus of the Magic defense?
I think the focus for the Magic defensively right now is to get stops in general. Orlando is struggling on the defensive end without Dwight Howard. And it is driving Stan Van Gundy absolutely nuts. What Orlando has to focus on is being better individually as defenders. This is a team that has Dwight Howard hide a lot of its defensive shortcomings. Orlando does a great job on general rotations, but when there are a lot of individual breakdowns, being able to rotate and be in the right spot can only do so much. I would expect to see some zone from the Magic in this series too. Indiana is not the best 3-point shooting team and so this might be the best strategy for the Magic... if only they had the size inside.
5) Despite losing the season series 3-1, the Pacers are now obviously the favorites. Under what scenarios can you see the Magic scoring a first round upset?
Aside from Dwight Howard making some miraculous comeback and playing at a high level this series or a catastrophic injury to the Pacers? I think the key is going to be how well the Magic shoot from beyond the arc. Contested or uncontested, the Magic have to take and make 3-pointers. If they make a lot of them, this could become a very interesting series. If the Magic fall flat from beyond the arc, like they did last year, they don't have the defense or the superstar to fall on to save them. The Magic need to take and make a lot of 3-pointers, because the goal is going to be to outscore the Pacers and hope that is enough.
6) Prediction for the series. Who wins, how many games and who is the MVP and unsung hero?
I have the Pacers in five. I do not think Orlando is going to be able to hit 3-pointers consistent enough over a seven-game series and I think the Indiana defense is not going to allow Orlando try the "outscore them" strategy. It is difficult to have a lot of faith in the Magic's defense right now to survive those offensive lulls. So, I give Orlando one game where the 3-pointers are falling and one game where Indiana does not have one guy take over or Roy Hibbert gets into foul trouble (somehow).