What We’ll Learn in Game 3 vs. Hawks

Does Home Court Really Matter?
Atlanta has struggled mightily on the road in the postseason the last few years. The Hawks have lost 10 of their last 12 playoff road games and lost those games by an average of 19.4 points per game. To go far in the postseason, you have to be able to win road games. That is why Orlando looks to be in very good position to win against Atlanta and move on to the Conference Finals.

Don’t count the chickens so fast though. The Hawks showed they can win big games on the road in those two games — the Game Six victory in Milwaukee and a Game Four victory against the Heat in last year’s first round. As always, the series does not really start until the road team wins a game.

When it comes to winning on the road, places do not get much tougher than Philips Arena.

Atlanta went 34-7 at home (the same record as Orlando) and just 19-22 on the road. The Hawks have won 15 of their past 16 home games and the last loss before their Game Five collapse at Philips Arena came Feb. 26 against Dallas in overtime. Winning in what fans affectionately call “The Highlight Factory” is no easy task.

Orlando is a good road team and will not be intimidated by the crowd noise and energy in the building. The Magic went 25-16 on the road themselves and took both games in Charlotte to complete a first round sweep — and the Bobcats were 31-10 at home.

Atlanta is a much better team at home. Josh Smith especially plays better at home than on the road. He averages 16.5 points per game, 52 percent shooting and 9.7 rebounds per game at home compared to 15.0 points, 48.9 percent shooting, and 7.7 rebounds on the road.

Most have pointed to Smith’s matchup with Rashard Lewis as an advantage for Atlanta. So far it has not materialized. If it will, it will happen in Game Three.

Atlanta’s crowd will be very energized and Game Three is always the toughest for the higher seed to win as the series shifts to a new site.

How will Dwight Howard defend Al Horford and dominate the paint?
Al Horford was undoubtedly the Hawks’ best player in Thursday’s game and he did one thing very well that helped his team control the game for most of the contest. It did not continue through the fourth quarter as Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford tried to work one on one and slowed the game to a crawl.

But Horford’s 24-point performance should not be overlooked. He did a lot of things Orlando will have to be aware of in Game Three.

Horford shot 9 of 13 from the floor. According to Hoopdata, Horford was six for eight from beyond 10 feet including four for six from 16-23 feet. Only 55.6 percent of Horford’s makes were assisted, so he both set himself up and depended on others. Either way Horford was making a living outside the paint, drawing Howard away from where he likes to roam.

This could be a problem for the Magic.

It is no secret Dwight Howard is a human shot repellent. Teams simply change their approach to attacking the basket because Howard is in the game. He has been blocking shots at an incredible rate throughout the postseason even with his foul trouble.

So what happens when Howard has to defend someone who can not only try and post him up (Horford did go one for three at the rim in Game Two) but also step out and hit mid-range jumpers? That is the question Stan Van Gundy will have to answer.

Joe Johnson went cold in Game Two and a lot of that has to be credited to the defense of Matt Barnes, Mickael Pietrus and Dwight Howard. Will Johnson shoot 5 of 16 again? Most teams probably would not gamble on it.

Howard is going to have to work harder to contest Horford’s shots while still being a deterrent in the paint. He did not win the Defensive Player of the Year for nothing and will probably be able to do this. But it presents some interesting decisions for him that could open up space for Atlanta to cut and penetrate — that is, if the team decides to do that instead of isolating all the time.

How will Atlanta defend the pick and roll?
Sebastian Pruiti of NBA Playbook does a very good job breaking down how Vince Carter worked the pick and roll in Thursday’s Game Two victory. Atlanta simply had no answer for this play down the stretch and Orlando used it time and time again to score and pull away.

Rest assured, Atlanta will be better prepared to defend against this play in Game Three. But as Pruiti shows, it is still pretty difficult to stop.

The Hawks like to switch off of just about every screen. The Magic will continue to run pick and rolls to get Howard some space in the post and find the mismatch they want to exploit. It appears unlikely Atlanta will change this strategy as this has been the team’s defensive plan all season.

It was clear early in Game One that the Hawks can have success in this series if they can get out in transition and score fast break points. This is where Josh Smith really killed Orlando in the first quarter. That all stopped once the Magic started making shots in that game.

Could Atlanta try to trap Orlando more to make things more difficult for the ball handler and force more turnovers? Charlotte had some success with the team’s trapping defense in the first round, especially in Game Three when Stephen Jackson picked Jameer Nelson’s pocket a few times and raced down the other way for an easy lay in.

Then again, the scenario Pruitt describes could happen where Carter can find an open Rashard Lewis or an open Mickael Pietrus. It puts Atlanta out of position to close out on the shooters and gives Orlando more space to cut to the basket. The Magic are such a good passing team this could be a high risk/high reward strategy.

How to defend the pick and roll is the fundamental question NBA coaches must answer. It is much harder with the weapons the Magic have. Mike Woodson will have to turn his answer sheet in Saturday and see how his strategy performs.

Philip Rossman-Reich

About Philip Rossman-Reich

Philip Rossman-Reich is the managing editor for Crossover Chronicles and Orlando Magic Daily. You can follow him on twitter @OMagicDaily