NBA 1st Round Preview: Indiana-Orlando

The Indiana Pacers hold homecourt advantage in their matchup with the Orlando Magic in the 3-6 spot on the NBA’s Eastern Conference bracket. This is the “What Could Have Been” series, in that we could have had the best two centers in the East face off with Dwight Howard and Roy Hibbert. Instead, the enigmatic Howard is out for the year, Orlando is reeling and this has the feel of a rout waiting to happen. TheSportsNotebook previews the Indiana-Orlando series to see if there’s any hope of an upset…

If Orlando is counting on Indiana to join them on the path to self-destruction, they won’t find any help. The Pacers are a good defensive team, ranking 10th in the NBA in defensive efficiency (points adjusted for tempo) and this is a team that makes its free throws. Five of the top six players hit 80 percent or better from the charity stripe, and the one exception is Hibbert—and even his 71 percent isn’t bad for a 7’2” center. Indiana is well-balanced across its lineup. They have a clear go-to player in Danny Granger at small forward, who averages 19 ppg and is a threat to hit the trey. David West and Hibbert are capable scorers on the blocks and a coalition of guards made up of Paul George, Leandro Barbosa and George Hill provide some backcourt punch. Then throw in Darren Collision running the show and it adds up to a team that, while you can debate how high its ceiling is, isn’t going to hand away wins.

Then there’s the Magic. Howard’s antics about where he would and wouldn’t go at the trade deadline and his perpetual changes of heart about his commitment to Orlando have surely put Brett Favre’s comparatively mild indecision about his future in perspective. More to the point, Howard’s injury has exposed how weak Orlando is on the front line without him. The depth chart lists Glen “Big Baby” Davis as the center. Davis is an easy to like player, as I can attest from my time rooting for him as a Celtic with his hustle and obvious passion for the game. But he’s grossly overmatched in the post and even playing forward in Boston he had issues with getting shots blocked. Ryan Anderson is a quality power forward with 16 points/8 rebounds per game, but his greatest asset is his ability to step out and hit a jump shot. He’s perfect to complement Howard, less so to be a part of a team trying to replace him. Orlando does have guards who can shoot the ball well, with J.J. Redick being light out from anywhere on the floor and Jameer Nelson and Jason Richardson being respectable on the jumper themselves. The Magic also likely welcome back Hedo Turkoglu at small forward after he suffered a broken face bone earlier this month.

To pick up on a point made about Anderson, everything about Orlando’s team screams that it’s been built to play around Howard, which obviously makes sense. If Indiana extends its defense, can Nelson, at age 30, still break the Pacers down with the dribble. Can Richardson create his own shot? Can Redick get open? The matter is further complicated by the fact that the presence of the shotblocking Hibbert and his ability to wipe away defensive mistakes on the perimeter can free Indiana up to be even more aggressive.  When you look at Orlando’s team, as presently constituted—and by the way, Big Baby is nursing an ankle injury and is questionable for Game 1—I find it hard to see anything other than the worst team in the playoffs, and probably worse than non-playoff teams like Phoenix and Houston out West.

There’s a lot to wonder about with Indiana. Can Collison quarterback a championship team? Can Granger be a true elite player in a big-time playoff series? Will any of the Pacers command enough stature to get favorable officiating? All are valid questions. We won’t find out any answers until a presumed second-round matchup with Miami, because Indiana’s blowing away Orlando in four straight.