Atlanta is experienced in close games this year. Wednesday night was not the first time the Hawks saw a lead evaporate, saw an opposing team hit a big shot late or found a way to eke out a win.
Nitpick the final play all you want. Orlando, despite being confused when Atlanta did not call a timeout on the final possession, forced Joe Johnson into a difficult shot that fell off the front iron just at the right angle for Josh Smith to swoop in for the put back.
Rashard Lewis can receive all the blame people can heap on him for failing to box out Smith, but he moved over to cover Dwight Howard’s man after Howard came over to help on Johnson. Maybe a timeout would have corrected this, maybe not. If the ball bounces off a different part of the rim maybe Smith does not get the dunk in on time, maybe not.
It is difficult to nitpick a single play like this and it is far from an indication of how the team played in the possession leading up to it. Orlando played great defense on that possession and had a split second lapse of focus. Same thing happened in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Finals when Hedo Turkoglu forced LeBron James into a tough fade away 3-pointer that won Cleveland their first game in that series.
But Matt Guokas said something interesting as the Magic headed into a timeout with the Magic down three earlier in the final minute. Atlanta is experienced in close games — Johnson and Jamal Crawford have hit their fair share of game winners this season and the last four games for Atlanta all went down to the wire. Orlando, on the other hand, were not quite as experienced in close games.
John Hollinger likes to use point differential as a measure of how good a team really is. And the Magic are second in the league with a +6.9 average point differential. They know how to win games running away and do not play close games that often. But we all know games, playoff series and championships are defined by crunch time and single plays.
The game against Atlanta was a good test of Orlando’s crunch time mettle. And even with a loss, the Magic played pretty well.
They outscored Atlanta in the final six minutes 17-10, erasing an 11-point deficit in the process. But in the final three minutes, the Hawks won the battle 8-7 and thus got the win. Maybe the Magic were tired after the comeback. Maybe they just needed to foul and gave the Hawks some easy points. It is just one game and a small sample size to look at.
But down three, Carter hit the shot he needed to hit to give Orlando a chance at a win and even Dwight Howard made his crunch time free throws.
For a team that has only played seven games that have been decided by one possession (plus last week’s game against Miami that went to overtime). Orlando is 3-4 in those games, losing three times on offensive rebounds — Michael Beasley’s put back in November, Amare Stoudemire’s offensive rebound to go up three in Phoenix in December and the put back by Josh Smith. And the other loss was a last second shot by Caron Butler against Washington. Not easy ways to lose.
One possession games should go about 50-50, so those numbers hold up to the average.
What is more interesting is how the Magic do in close games. How do they execute and perform when the chips are down and the game is truly up in the air in the final six minutes of a game?
Orlando has played 19 games decided by six points or fewer in regulation (that is out of 73 games. The team is 11-8 in those games and has won four of its last five such games. The Magic are so good because they can blow out opponents and do not need to play in tight games very often. Orlando is 40-14 in other games. The majority of the team’s games are not close and Orlando usually comes out on the right side.
But as you can see in the table below, the Magic are not so great in the final half of the fourth quarter.
|Team (Score)||Score Final 6 Mins.|
|@ DET 11/3 (80-85)||7-12|
|vs. CHA 11/16 (97-91)||13-10|
|@BOS 11/20 (83-78)||8-8|
|vs. MIA 11/25 (98-99)||12-15|
|@ MIL 11/28 (100-98)||14-17|
|@ PHO 12/11 (103-106)||8-12|
|vs. UTA 12/21 (104-99)||20-13|
|vs. TOR 1/6 (103-108)||18-10|
|@ LAL 1/18 (92-98)||21-17|
|@ CHA 1/23 (106-95 OT)||17-20, 14-3 in OT|
|@ MEM 1/25 (94-99)||10-14|
|vs. BOS 1/28 (96-94)||17-11|
|@DET 1/31 (91-86)||13-13|
|vs. WAS 2/5 (91-92)||9-10|
|vs. NO 2/8 (123-117)||22-13|
|vs. CLE 2/21 (101-95)||20-10|
|vs. LAL 3/7 (96-94)||15-17|
|@MIA 3/18 (108-102 OT)||9-19, 13-7 in OT|
|@ATL 3/24 (84-86)||17-10|
Orlando might be 11-8 overall in those games, but the team is 8-9-2 in the final three minutes of those games — plus they are 2-0 in overtime. Orlando outscores opponents 14.2-13.2 in the final three minutes of close games giving up a range of 8-20 points and scoring a range of 7-22. Both are pretty wide ranges and it obviously depends on who the Magic are playing.
Again, close games tend to average out to .500 and the majority of the Magic’s games are not close. But as the postseason get closer, everyone knows playing well in crunch time matter.