It came as no surprise when Orlando's 99-90 victory over the home-standing Bobcats completed a sweep of the series. And as the trajectory of the playoffs brings the Cavs and the Magic closer and closer to the inevitable showdown, it remains to be seen if Orlando's offseason player moves have strengthened or weakened the defending Eastern Conference champions.
WHY THE MAGIC MIGHT BE BETTER THIS YEAR
Vince Carter is much more athletic than the departed Hedo Turkoglu. As such, VC can create his own shots, and can score from far and near. After a poor beginning in the game at hand, Carter's jumper began nestling into the net in the third quarter, and the Magic simply rode him into the middle of the fourth quarter. Indeed, Carter's isolations from up top produced the majority of his 21 points and his 7-for-16 shooting. In addition, he totaled four assists without committing a single turnover.
With Carter in place of Turkoglu, the Magic are quicker, slicker and more explosive. Also, VC's dynamic point-making lessens Orlando's dependence on Dwight Howard to be its featured scorer.
Unlike last season at this time, Jameer Nelson is healthy. His leadership, shot- and play-making are truly the keys to his team's success. Nelson runs the screen/role to perfection and his drive-and-kick game generates most of Orlando's 3-point shots. However, it was an endgame killer 3-ball by Nelson himself that extended Orlando's lead to 10 points and extinguished the Bobcats' season.
Rashard Lewis seems more comfortable than he was last year in his role as an adjunct scorer. His passwork has also dramatically improved -- 3 assists, 5-8 from the field (including 4-of-7 bonus shots), for 17 points.
The signing of Matt Barnes gives Orlando another 3-point shooter and defensive ace to pair with holdover Mickael Pietrus. Together they produced 27 points, 6 treys and 5 steals. But their most significant contribution in this particular game was to take turns smothering the dangerous Stephen Jackson, who managed only 8 points on 2-for-11 shooting. Moreover, Barnes adds a large measure of belligerence and toughness to the Magic's mix.
J.J. Redick didn't have a very productive game -- 1-3, 1 assist, 4 points in 10 minutes -- but his hard work and intelligence have made him a plus-player off the bench.
Marcin Gortat is also playing with a newfound confidence -- 3-5, 6 rebounds, one assist, 6 points. Gortat has better defensive range than does Howard, showing to good effect on screen/rolls and ball penetrations. And when he's involved in a S/R, Gortat's dive cuts are quick and timely.
Anchored by Howard's shot-blocking, Orlando's defense is tighter and quicker than before. At the same time, its offense is more varied and, when they are correctly focused, the ball moves more rapidly.
WHY THE MAGIC MIGHT BE WORSE
More than ever, Howard simply can't avoid committing dumb fouls. For example, early in the game he blatantly pushed Nazr Mohammed in the back in clear view of the refs, the fans, and the TV audience. But Howard still looked incredulous when he was whistled for the foul. Other unnecessary fouls he incurred included tripping a guard on a screen/pop, and throwing his body (instead of going straight up) at D.J. Augustin while attempting to block a layup. Howard's fourth foul occurred when he was standing stock still and Raymond Felton simply ran into him. In truth, Felton should have been tooted for a charge, but Howard's reputation unduly influenced the refs and he was the victim of his own habitual misdeeds.
Howard's playing time was severely curtailed during the entire series. In Game 4 he played only 23 minutes before fouling out, recording a mere six points, but still managing to latch on to 13 rebounds. With Howard on the bench due to his own malfeasance, the Magic's board-power is greatly diminished.
Also, Howard's offensive moves are as crude as ever. While he's a terrific shot-blocker, he rarely shows to good effect in defending high S/Rs, and he commits too firmly on ball-penetrations, thereby leaving the basket unprotected. Because he's so mesmerized by the ball, smart teams can easily induce him to abandon his assigned defensive responsibilities.
Carter is a streaky shooter who too often settles for long jumpers. Plus, his defensive deficiencies were highlighted when the Bobcats repeatedly ran isos for whomever he was guarding -- usually Gerald Wallace. Carter also has a history of being short-armed when an important game is up for grabs -- which certainly wasn't the case in closing out Charlotte.
Lewis frequently gets lost when playing weak-side defense, which leads to botched rotations.
Nelson tends to over-handle, which often leads to the entire offense stagnating. In the closeout game, the Magic recorded only 18 assists to go with their 28 field goals, while the Bobcats' numbers were 27 and 32.
Nothing very positive happens when Jason Williams replaces Nelson.
Sans Turkoglu, the Magic lack the built-in mismatches where a small forward has to guard either Turkoglu or Lewis, and/or where either of these two can force a power forward to play honest defense on the nether side of the 3-point arc.
Simply because Nelson is healthy, the Magic are several points better this year than they were last year. They're certainly good enough to fulfill their destiny -- as well as the fervid expectations of most NBA watchers -- by matching up with Cleveland in a furious competition to determine which team will advance to the finals.