The regular season is over and now the most important season begins. The Atlanta Hawks head into the playoffs as the No. 5 seed and will be taking on the No. 4 seed Orlando Magic. For those not familiar, it was at the hands of Orlando that these Hawks suffered a beat down in the second round of the playoffs last season. This Orlando team is different however. Mid season they completed a trade that severely altered the make up of their team. Reviews of that trade have been mixed but I think it is apparent that they are no longer the match up nightmare that they were last season for these Hawks as Atlanta's 3-1 regular season record suggests.
That doesn't necessarily mean that the Hawks will be successful in knocking off the Magic and moving to the second round for the third consecutive season. If anything, Atlanta limps into the playoffs with a season high six game losing streak after spending the last week and a half somewhere between trying to rest players while at the same time getting ready for the playoffs. In the process they lost back to back road games in Indiana and Washington with the Wizards loss being another 30 point drubbing. Can this team just simply flip the switch?
Here are some key things to watch in the upcoming series:
Dwight Howard & Jameer Nelson
Howard is the undisputed best player in this series and is a likely MVP candidate. Atlanta found success by matching Jason Collins against him during the regular season. Collins was able to frustrate Howard from time to time and Atlanta will be much better off if they can keep Howard off of the floor. Atlanta will attempt to single cover Howard so that the other defenders on the floor can stay with the Magic's shooters.
Dwight Howard by now has probably been asked about Jason Collins more times than he can count. He will be focused on destroying not just Collins but any big that Atlanta throws at him. The Hawks need to try and frustrate him while also making him work hard for everything he gets. Foul him and put him on the free throw rather than letting him attack the rim. It also wouldn't hurt to mention the 10-second count at the free throw line that Howard has been called for numerous times this season. Atlanta simply has to look for any advantage they can get as it really isn't as much about stopping Howard as it is containing him.
It sounds crazy to suggest but Nelson has probably been a bigger headache for Atlanta than Howard has. If you get right down into the nuts and bolts of this series then how the Hawks handle the Nelson-Howard pick and roll will probably define the series. Atlanta brought Kirk Hinrich over to give themselves an upgrade defensively at the point guard position. Whether or not they were successful will be on full display in this playoff series.
It is no secret that Joe Johnson will be the focal point defensively for the Magic. Post trade, Orlando isn't as adequately equipped to guard Johnson and the Hawks made a habit of trying to post Johnson against Jason Richardson at every opportunity. I fully expect to see Hedo Turkoglu matched on Johnson throughout this series. Atlanta isn't going to pull an upset without Johnson having a significant impact. That doesn't necessarily mean that he has to score thirty points every night but it does mean that he has to make the correct decisions and Atlanta must make the Magic pay anytime they double Johnson. This is an opportunity for Johnson to validate his worth to the franchise and whether the Hawks win or lose probably falls on him as much as anyone whether he admits it or not.
Hawks Bench Vs. Orlando's Bench
Or more specifically Jamal Crawford versus Gilbert Arenas. To have a chance, I think Atlanta has to win this match up whether or not it is actually Arenas that is doing the damage for Orlando. The Hawks desperately need Crawford at his best because that will go along way in keeping the heat off of Joe Johnson. It also says something that after 82 games I still don't really know who is likely to play regularly in this series. Larry Drew will no doubt employ every big he has on the roster to help deal with Howard. In the backcourt however, I wouldn't be surprised to see Jeff Teague make an impact or remain in a warm up.
I almost went with Al Horford right here but I feel like I know what Atlanta will get from Horford. Josh on the other hand is sometimes a mixed bag. He is equally capable of leading the Hawks past the Magic or being one of the primary reasons they fail. Atlanta needs Smith on both ends of the floor and they need him to find a happy medium with the jump shot on offense. The Hawks need Smith to be their best player if they are to win this series. When things get tough, how the Hawks and Josh Smith in particular handle things will be key.
I can't sit here with a straight face and pick a team that lost its last six games to win a playoff series. I just can't. I also have difficulty picking a team that has not shown the ability to look adversity in the face and hit back. I think Atlanta is talented enough to win this series even with Dwight Howard on the floor for the Magic. However, I am not sure that they are mentally tough enough and believe in each other enough to pull it off. I think the story will be told in games 1 & 2. If Atlanta can somehow come up with a road victory then we may just have a series on our hands. If they come back to Atlanta down 0-2, have they shown the resolve to be able hold serve at home? I am just not terribly confident with that scenario. One thing that is worth noting is that the future of this core group may ride on the outcome of this series. With that in the back of their minds, there shouldn't be any issues with effort in this series. If there are, then the answer is pretty clear in my mind as to what the future of that core group should be.
I want to believe, but now I want this team to give me a reason to.