It is hard to circle games at this point in the season. Orlando is just working to get healthy with eight games remaining before the end of the regular season. It is safe to say the Magic have known they were going to the playoffs long before they officially clinched a spot a few weeks ago (FYI: first round Playoff tickets go on sale April 5).
One game which may have been circled or at least looked at with some raised interest might be Wednesday’s matchup with the Hawks. Orlando and Atlanta have been on a collision course for each other really since December. The Magic have been the fourth team in the East for a long while now and the Hawks have been comfortably behind.
There was a time when Orlando was legitimately concerned that Atlanta might have home court advantage in the first round. That nightmare ended as the Magic hit a nice rhythm in avoiding long losing streaks. Meanwhile the Hawks have completely faded away.
What looked like a team that had finally found a consistent offensive gameplan to go along with a surprisingly good defense has turned into a team lacking direction and quickly falling down in the standings. Atlanta has just been bad, plain bad since the All-Star Break.
The Hawks are 42-32 this year and have that Playoff spot wrapped up. Since the All-Star Break, Atlanta is 8-11. Overall the Hawks are 20th in offensive efficiency with a 103.5 rating and 16th in defensive efficiency with a 104.3 rating. Only Indiana (and potentially Charlotte) have a worse efficiency differential among teams competing for a playoff spot.
The question is not how the Hawks have fallen apart late this season, but more how have they been good in the first place?
One reason they have been good is because they still have All Stars Joe Johnson and Al Horford and should-be All Star Josh Smith. Add in the always dangerous on offense Jamal Crawford and the improvement at the point in acquiring Kirk Hinrich over Mike Bibby. Atlanta still has weapons.
So what has happened with Larry Drew’s guys? Seriously. This team has so much potential and has consistently been in the postseason for the last four years now.
It is very difficult to tell. Many have always sort of discarded the Hawks when it comes to serious Playoff discussion. They are a nice team that performs well in the regular season but just does not have the pieces or the personnel — much less the statistical basis to believe — to advance deeper into the playoffs.
That negative efficiency differential just shows what an anomaly this team is and is perhaps a testament to the fact that talent on the floor can sometimes trump statistics.
Still, the Hawks’ struggles recently, while mystifying when considering all the team has accomplished in the last few years and the players they have on the floor, have not brought the streaking 76ers into the race. Philadelphia still trails Atlanta by four games. With Orlando five games ahead of Atlanta and four games behind Miami for the third spot.
This appears to be the only first round matchup set in stone.
Nothing seems to suggest Atlanta is going to fare much better against Orlando than the team did last year in the postseason — you know when Orlando had the largest margin of victory in a four-game series in league history. The Hawks last year even struggled to get out of the first round against the upstarts from Milwaukee. Again, nothing seems to suggest results will be much different this time around.
Except this season’s results.
The Magic have had their struggles against the Hawks this year — even before the trades. Dwight Howard and Vince Carter dominated in an early-season come-from-behind win at Amway Center. Howard made his return from the strange stomach illness that fell upon the team in December as Atlanta got off the schneid and picked up a win in Orlando. And then the Hawks won for the second time this year in the first game for Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu. Earl Clark even had to have a Hawks-style number 3 placed on his jersey for the game.
If matchups truly matter in the postseason, you are not going to learn a lot from those games. Probably not even from Wednesday’s game, with Joe Johnson returning from injury and Jameer Nelson likely to miss a second consecutive game (not to mention JJ Redick missing his ninth consecutive game), will tell us a lot about this potential playoff matchup.
Still, both teams are making some adjustments and working on things that are pretty fundamental to what they do. That could provide clues to both sides on what to expect in the Playoffs. Then again, Wednesday’s game could just be all about confidence.
After the win against the new-look Magic in December, I remember Josh Smith saying how important the win was for breaking the spell the Magic had over them. Allowing the Hawks to win the season series 3-1 gives them a leg-up confidence-wise that could put them over the hump. No doubt by the middle of the series last year, Atlanta might have believed there was no way for them to beat Orlando. The team broke its confidence.
Here is another chance to gain a psychological edge. Because it feels more and more like Atlanta and Orlando will see each other in the first round of the playoffs. And the Magic want to keep the Hawks skidding as the Playoffs draw near.