The 66-game regular season, mercifully, is over. The NBA jam-packed 66 games into a space where 50 usually went, and the result was a strange five-month run that had us talking about rested legs and oddball rotations more than we spoke of learning and growing and all that typically mindful stuff that comes to our heads when discussing the NBA. The playoffs start on Saturday, though, and the brains behind Ball Don't Lie are ready to break down the first-round matchups.
From your pal, Kelly Dwyer
Hey. It's Kelly. That wasn't fun, was it? The silly lockout, the terrible season, the Dwight Howard. It's OK, though. It's over now. That is a bird chirping in the distance, I made a pretty good sandwich for your lunch and we don't have anything to do when you get home from work but watch a series of basketball games played by players that are rested, well-instructed, and mindful of what town they're in.
You're going to feel better, now. Your pal insists on it.
I don't get what the big deal is.
In four games against the Indiana Pacers this season, Dwight Howard averaged nearly 24 points per game while shooting 68 percent from the floor. Though he was matched up against the sturdy and All-Star-y Roy Hibbert, Howard pulled in 10.8 rebounds a contest while combining for 16 total steals and blocks in a season series that Orlando easily won, 3-1.
Also, sometime on the afternoon of April 5, while in the basement of my wife's hair salon, I accidentally drank Barbicide. "Accidentally," "curiously," "intentionally," "gladly," whatever you want to call it.
No matter the impetus, the hoped-for result was achieved. I still think Dwight Howard plays for the Orlando Magic. I still think he plays well, and in concert with like-minded coach Stan Van Gundy, for the Orlando Magic. I still don't believe that he destroyed Orlando's season from the outset, that he caved in to team and public pressure by agreeing to a player option for 2012-13 that he wanted nothing to do with on a whim, all while working behind the scenes to have one of the best coaches in the NBA fired.
So you can't blame me, for as long as the effects of the potion hold up, for thinking that the Magic are still in the hunt in the Eastern Conference. Sure, the Indiana Pacers put together the most unheralded season the NBA didn't see saw this year. Sure, Pacers coach Frank Vogel looks to be a Coach of the Year contender that could someday rank as Van Gundy's equal (no small praise there), and that the Pacers' winning percentage in this shortened season (the squad won the equivalent of 53 games in an orthodox year) ranks as the fourth-best record in team history, even eclipsing the work of those Larry Brown-led teams from the mid-1990s.
I could know all this, but like a whole lot of NBA fans (and, sadly, way too many residents of the state of Indiana), I refuse to. Life was simpler when it was fun to root for Dwight Howard, and the Pacers are a victim of my blue-addled brain.
Or, perhaps, I can take my wife's advice and drink some water.
(Delicious. Good call, wife.)
The Pacers have been fantastic all season. Paul George has overcome predraft obstacles to turn into one of the league's better all-around players, Danny Granger has overcome a once-dodgy handle (and slow start to the season) to put teams away in the clutch, Hibbert is like he's always been (but with more minutes, and a friendship with Chelsea Peretti), and you get the feeling Darren Collison could get his act together at any moment.
Like, say, in the second round against Mario Chalmers and the Miami Heat.
Pacers in five.
'Deep Thoughts' and Cheap Thoughts with Dan Devine
For every postseason matchup, Ball Don't Lie's resident dummy will offer a topically appropriate entry from the best-selling series of "Deep Thoughts" books written by legendary humorist Jack Handey, plus some of his own original thoughts on the playoff series. The combination will cost you literally nothing; we suggest you use the savings to purchase one of Mr. Handey's life-changing books.
No. 3 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 6 Orlando Magic
"Somebody told me how frightening it was how much topsoil we are losing each year, but I told that story around the campfire and nobody got scared."
Remember how Joakim Noah called the Miami Heat "Hollywood as hell" during last year's playoffs? Well, I respectfully submit that the Pacers are topsoil as heck.
As we covered last week, Indiana doesn't have any signature stars, so they don't generate a ton of highlights or regularly receive national attention -- if you mention the Pacers to non-NBA diehards, you're very likely to be greeted by blank stares and glazed eyes. The general public really hasn't seen them yet, so no one's been paying attention. It's almost like this team won 42 games, good enough for the fifth-best record in the NBA, under cover of darkness. Well, people are about to notice, because the Pacers are about to sweep the Magic.
Indiana went 15-5 in its final 20 games of the season, averaging 108.7 points per 100 possessions over that stretch (two full points above their already excellent season average, good for seventh in the league), while giving up 103.4-per-100 (just a tick below their season mark, which was the league's ninth-best). Now, to be fair, they built that mark largely against a lower rung of competition, rolling up a 12-1 mark against lottery teams over the final month of the season, which you might say isn't the best estimation of how they'll fare against a playoff team.
Here's the thing: Without Dwight Howard, the Orlando Magic aren't a playoff team.
Basketball-Reference.com's win shares metric aims to estimate the number of wins a player contributes to his team through his play, both on offense and defense. In the 54 games he played for the Magic this year — a year that wasn't his best, a year that ended in chaos, controversy and injury — B-R estimates that Howard was worth 7.7 wins. That doesn't put Howard at the very head of the NBA's class — LeBron James leads the list at an estimated 14.5 wins, trailed by Chris Paul (12.7), Kevin Durant (12.2), Kevin Love (10.0) and Tyson Chandler (9.5) — but it's still a starring role and the second highest of any Orlando player behind the 8.9 posted in seven more games played by Ryan Anderson (who, as we told you before the season, is a star in the making).
Maybe you don't dig win shares, though. Maybe you prefer the Wins Produced metric favored by Dave Berri and the Wages of Wins guys, which pegged Howard as a 6.6-win player at the All-Star break. Or John Hollinger's Estimated Wins Added stat, which says Howard was worth about 14 wins over a replacement-level center this year. Or maybe you just trust your lyin' eyes, which have told you for five years running that he's the best center in the league. Whatever your brand of evaluative bourbon, we can take as read that Howard is a game-changing force for Orlando on both ends of the court. Strip him out of the Magic's equation and a 37-29 sixth seed starts looking an awful lot like a .500-or-worse squad that'd be lucky to sniff at the bottom of the bracket, even in the East.
The Magic played 12 games without Howard this year, going 4-8. While they failed to score 90 points four times in that stretch, Orlando's offensive numbers without the center were actually better than their season average; they scored 105.7 points per 100 possessions in Howard's absence, thanks to a couple of big offensive explosions (113 points in a win over the Philadelphia 76ers and 119 in a blowout of the Detroit Pistons).
They had a really tough time on the defensive end, though. In 12 games without Howard cleaning up messes in the middle, the Magic gave up 100 points in seven of 12 games and allowed opponents to score an average of 108.7 points per 100 possessions. If maintained over the course of a season, that defensive efficiency rating would rank the Magic below even the 7-59 Charlotte Bobcats, according to Hoopdata.
A team bringing a defense that bad into a first-round matchup with a top-10 offense featuring about eight different guys who can score in double figures should be absolutely terrified, even if they know it's going to be over soon. Starless nights can be the scariest if the story gets told right.
PREDICTION: Pacers in four.
Five Predictions for Indiana vs. Orlando, From the Sensible Eric Freeman
1. This will be the least watchable series of the first round.
2. Someone will ask Dwight Howard how he feels about the Magic's chances, but he will be more concerned with lining up new cartoon voiceover jobs in Los Angeles.
3. Stan Van Gundy will take off his shoes and socks during the third quarter of Game 3.
4. The Pacers will dominate and no one will want to talk about them at all.
5. Pacers in five.
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