After a needlessly overwrought season that seemed to start all the way back in July with LeBron James' "Decision," the playoffs are finally here. After months of waiting, we're at a point where we don't have to qualify every on- or off-court decision with the caveat that reminds us that we're not yet at playoff time. No, we're at playoff time. It's the freakin' playoffs, cats and kittens, and I can hear your goosebumps popping from here. Gross.
In this episode, the Orlando Magic take on the Atlanta Hawks.
I can't help but be curious after moving through preview after preview featuring this series. The Hawks have just about owned Orlando when Jason Collins plays big minutes for Atlanta, effectively shutting down Dwight Howard's offense while his teammates match and move beyond Orlando's frustratingly mediocre work with the ball. The Hawks match up well with the Magic, they've beaten them soundly in the last three pairings and yet everyone seems to be picking Orlando.
Why? Because nobody trusts Atlanta. Not in the slightest. And that lack of trust is somehow superseding the actual on-record documentation that tells us, through a pretty solid enough sample size, that Atlanta has the Magic held at arm's length.
Losing six straight games to end the season doesn't really help your reputation either, Hawksies.
Can you blame the analysis? After all, Atlanta should have acquitted itself better in its second-round sweeps at the hands of Orlando last year and Cleveland the year before. The regular-season work at the very least pointed to the Hawks taking a game or two in a seven-game series, rather than being swept in eight games by a points-per-game average that ran well over 20. And yet, you couldn't trust the Hawks to fulfill that promise, even if that promise only meant taking a series to five games.
And with the games slowed down, Collins' health in question, and the notoriously mercurial Magic possibly collecting their collective focus as the postseason hits, faith in the Hawks is in short supply. And things will stick this way until Atlanta gives us a reason to believe.
Dammit, I just put a Rod Stewart song in everyone's head. A Rod Stewart solo song.
My pick? Magic in six.
Welcome back to "PLAAAAAAAAAAYOFFS!" It's that time of year again, sports fans! This postseason, who will survive and thrive? Who will spit the bit? And who's going to come up with a third thing that rhymes?
Here to give you their made-up takes on the key X-factors, O-multiples and Zeeman effects of Magic/Hawks are 7-foot-4 Utah Jazz center-turned-celebrity motivational speaker Mark Eaton and 310-year veteran/olde-tyme crustbucket Ol' Man Howard!
Ol' Man Howard: Marvin Williams, still?
Mark Eaton: Marvin Williams, still.
OMH: Mmm, mmm, mmm.
ME (sighs): I know.
OMH and ME (in unison): Magic in four.
(Editor's note: Dan likes the Magic in five.)
Eric Freeman's Reputation Index
The regular season counts, but the postseason is where reputations are made. Tracy McGrady never won a playoff series and will always be seen as a disappointment. Derek Fisher lacks several fundamental basketball skills but will always be seen as a champion because he makes big shots when it counts. Chauncey Billups owes his entire nickname to the 2004 playoffs. The point being that playoff performance skews national perception of NBA players beyond all reason. In that vein, behold the BDL Reputations Index, your guide to what's at stake for the top names in the first round.
Dwight Howard: Depending on who you ask, Howard was this year's most deserving MVP candidate, becoming a better scorer inside and doing his usual transformative defensive work on a team that contains exactly zero (0) other capable defenders in its rotation. Despite that success, Howard is still discussed in terms of what he lacks as much as by what he can do. A complete and dominant postseason performance could strike that "yeah, but …" from future considerations of Howard's impact on a game. If he can do it against Al Horford, all the better.
Gilbert Arenas: Since last season's gun troubles, Arenas has morphed from a once-electric player struggling to come back from injuries to a walking punchline. His reputation is so bad, in fact, that he would have to do relatively little in the playoffs to improve it, maybe as little as scoring 20 points in an important win or hitting a major shot in crunch time. Unlike most of the players on this list, Arenas really just has to prove that he's still capable of providing something positive to a squad that wins playoff games, not necessarily a whole series. Is that so much to ask?
Joe Johnson: Every earthling agreed last summer that JJ's new contract made him the most overpaid player in the league, but few expected him to see a drop in his production in the first year of the deal. Now, he's not just overcompensated, but also in danger of losing his regular spot on the East All-Star team. A strong performance in the playoffs could keep him in the conversation of the NBA's best secondary starters for another year or two. The same goes if the Hawks lose the series -- Johnson just needs to show that he's a solid first option, not a superstar.
Josh Smith: What should we even make of Josh Smith at this point in his career? He's simultaneously electric and frustrating, turning in highlights and questionable decisions with startling regularity. In truth, his style will probably never change, although the way it's received can. If Smith can help the Hawks to a series win while having several productive games, he's still likely to be seen as a useful enigma rather than a roadblock to true success. If he's traded soon, that difference will matter both for where Smith ends up and what the Hawks can get in return.
My pick? Magic in five.