It's In the Cards: Why Magic Are Scarier Than Heat For Celtics
Fueled by the media circus, the Heat's 22-1 streak had both analysts and fans thinking breakthrough. The Heat were playing with more fury and seemed to have their big three in sync, with the role players following suit.
The 'Karma Police' references have escalated after LeBron's tweet about his former team. I don't buy into such nonsense, but the fact that the Heat's four game losing skid has been accompanied by injuries to all three of their superstars; it does validate entertaining speculation.
Although the Heat have greatly improved in terms of chemistry (as three all-stars should), they are nowhere near where they need to be. While the Celtics have continued their winning ways (despite a few injury hiccups), the Magic seem to finally have pieced together a formula that works.
Partially due to the recent changes, the Magic are now a greater threat to the Celtics' finals ambitions than the Heat. Here's why.
the Lowdown: the Down Low (Heat)
OK, so you can't really count this an argument due to its absurd obviousness. Still, it may end up being the most important point of all: The Heat have attempted to fill their roster with reasonably able big men like Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Erick Dampier to take some of the pressure (heat...) off of Joel Anthony.
Anthony deserves a little commendation for improving in recent games but the Heat announcers, maybe in hopes of suppressing their concerns, have been giving Anthony slightly too much credit. This year's numbers haven't improved despite averaging two-plus minutes more than his previous two seasons. He is inconsistent from an intensity standpoint (sound like a few other guys in Miami?), even though rebounding and a block here and there are now his only two jobs, averaging 1.1 field goal attempts per game.
Oh, and the loss of Udonis Haslem hurt jussst a bit.
the Lowdown: the Down Low (Magic)
What can be said about Dwight Howard?
Despite adding scorers, Howard is averaging the most points in his career (22.0). This can be attributed to improvements in his dual-handed hook shots and particularly his newly found bank shot (a la Tim Duncan). Howard has put in significant efforts on both and is clearly driven by the playoff losses of seasons past.
Although his blocks have dipped slightly from the past two seasons, Howard is now averaging over a steal per game and has gone 20+/10+ in 20 out of 39 games this season.
After starting off his career with two two-year stints in New Orleans and Dallas, Brandon Bass has finally found his place. Bass is averaging 11.0 points and 5.4 rebounds in the most minutes of his career (24). Ryan Anderson has also shown significant improvements, stretching defenses with his three-pointer and turning up the aggressiveness on the boards. The Magic continue to miss the services of Marcin Gortat less and less.
the NBA's Quarterback (Heat)
LeBron James, Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, Carlos Arroyo; raise your hand if you are the Heat's point guard.
James or Wade would probably tell you the answer is Chalmers or Arroyo, depending on what “Coach Spo” thinks is best. But this is not really the case. Whether it is Chalmers or Arroyo in the starting lineup for Miami, it is rare that either occupy the position for more than a quick trip down the court. At that point, the ball is handed off to one of the two stars. Fortunately, Chalmers and Arroyo have been two of the more reliable Heat jump-shooters (when they receive a pass without a defender five feet in any direction).
There is nobody there to make LeBron or Wade better. There is no facilitator. Although Wade and James capable of running a decent point (thanks to a couple of years in the same situation), the nagging issue takes away from the potential of the entire team.
While Heat fans pray for a Chauncey Billups-like miracle, the trade deadline approaches.
the NBA's Quarterback (Magic)
Criticism had been thrown in the direction of Jameer Nelson as part of the Magic's woes, but the insults are flying no longer.
Nelson has always been a capable point guard but never had the kind of players around him where he could act within himself. This season's acquisitions have brought Nelson into the mold he was bred to play in. He no longer forces shots and operates, sensibly, as a creator.
With Gilbert Arenas now running point off the bench, the Magic have two legitimate passing/scoring (Nelson) and scoring/passing (Arenas) threats. Both players have the toolbox to put up big numbers and can work within the offense when the looks aren't there.
Building Your Support Group (Heat)
With huge contracts in place, the Heat had very little leeway in terms of salary expenses to remain under the cap. But there were issues that needed to be addressed. With their limited finance and available resources (including rejections from Shaq and Derek Fisher), the Heat did the best they could. Here is what they came up with:
Acquisitions: Ilgauskas, Stackhouse, Howard, House, Dampier and Miller.
Which of these players have starting capabilities? Miller? Ilgauskas?
With their lack of funds, the Heat went the Celtics pick-up-the-old-guys-who-want-a-championship route. The cheaper, less talented, moonlighting old guys. This isn't the Celtics way at all!
Where are the impact players? Stackhouse? Bombed. Miller? Bombing. Howard? Perpetually bombing.
Mike Miller was supposed to be the key Heat pickup. A player that could come off the bench, log decent minutes, hit big shots, do his job. Well, Miller's post-injury season has consisted of 12.3 MPG, 1.7 PPG and a 23.1 shooting percentage. Ouch.
Sure, Ilgauskas is reliable for his signature jumper promptly followed by an ogreish head-bobbing run back to the defensive end. He is the player he was for LeBron in Cleveland. He can hit the open mid-range shot and can haul in a few rebounds. He can't go toe-to-toe with the league's best big men and he isn't good for big minutes.
House doesn't have the kind of cast around him off the bench to provide the spark he did in Boston and Dampier/Howard's abilities can be best described as aging.
Building Your Support Group (Magic)
The Magic, however, may have made the moves that saved not only their season but prevented Dwight Howard from considering other locations. The moves that say, “we got your back.”
What the Magic had expected out of Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis (rank this under most ridiculous contract in NBA history), they did not get. Not even close. The big-time shooting ability that plagued Carter throughout his Toronto days followed him like a shadow to Orlando. Lewis lost his aggressiveness and turned into a three-point shooter that lost his shot. So the Magic made a game saving play. Ship 'em out!
Acquisitions: Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu (again), Gilbert Arenas, Quentin Richardson, Chris Duhon, Earl Clark, Malik Allen.
OK, so the latter four haven't been that influential. Q. Rich has some solid defensive capabilities but his poor production has resulted in very low minutes in recent games. Let's discuss what replacing Carter, Lewis, and Pietrus/Gortat with J. Rich, Turkoglu, and Arenas has done for the Magic:
J. Rich is what Carter was not. A three-point shooter that hasn't yet lost his legs, Nash turned (one of) Howard's clutch kick-out, and a more dangerous player to the basket. Eight years ago I only would have believed two of these things. Carter grew increasingly passive in Orlando and is (how can I put this lightly?) one of the worst clutch shooters of our time. I am still pleased Vinsanity is doing better in his new home of Phoenix.
Rashard Lewis made up half of a high-scoring duo with Ray Allen in Seattle and the upside of his game seemed limitless (hence, the contract). Like Carter, Lewis also turned passive. With Howard, Carter, and Nelson alongside him, Lewis lost his identity given his recent postings with Washington, this is the only explanation I have.
Whatever pixie dust the Magic have, they seem to use it all on Turkoglu. After mediocre runs with Toronto and Phoenix, Turkoglu is back in blue and as it seems, could not be happier. He is averaging a career high 6.2 assists, and his most rebounds/points/minutes in three years. His smug Turkish demeanor has clearly regained its flavor. The big time shot was never gone; the “Michael Jordan of Turkey” is now as clutch as his days in Sactown.
If that's not enough, why not add a three-time 25+ point scorer off the bench?
Gilbert Arenas is finally on a team that has a true title shot and he couldn't be happier. Sure, Agent Zero has had his problems but it certainly makes sense why the Magic would take a chance on such a weapon. Arenas fills out the Magic bench and can provide scoring down the stretch when necessary. He is older now and it was time that he took on a more appropriate role. For the Magic, it was an easy risk-reward decision.
Off the Bench and (Not) On the Board
Heat Bench (playing time): House, Chalmers (or Arroyo), Jones, Howard, Miller, Ilgauskas, Dampier
It is hard to not say that the Heat bench borders on a joke. The majority of these players are a sixth to a 10th man off the bench. They are either old or inconsistent and have very little to offer in terms of production. Naturally, neither LeBron nor Wade can be off the court at the same time without a go-to facilitator either in the lineup or off the bench.
Magic Bench (playing time): Anderson, Arenas, Reddick, Q. Richardson
The Magic bench isn't as deep as it would be with a healthy Jason Williams or Chris Duhon, but it definitely knows how to produce.
Ryan Anderson has scored in double digits in 11 of 13 games and has added his fair share of rebounds and blocks as well. He has been one of the more pleasant surprises to show his colors since the trade and will continue to get solid minutes if he maintains his intensity.
J.J. Reddick is having the best statistical season of his career, averaging 10.3 PPG while shooting 44.5% from the field and 41.3% from three. Reddick has become one of the Magic's most effective shooters off the bench and his value cannot be overlooked.
If there is a sixth man on this team, it most certainly is Arenas. Arenas has enveloped his lessened minutes and seems to have realized his limitations. He doesn't have the legs he once did but he still has an eye for the basket as well as his teammates. Arenas may prove to be one of the Magic's more important components down the stretch.
Alright Guys, Who Do We Want To Take the Shot?
In terms of numbers, the Magic dwarf the Heat in clutch shooting capabilities.
Turkoglu, Richardson, Nelson, Arenas (Yes, Reddick too). All of these guys can hit the clutch jumper. The veterans have proven it on multiple occasions. Moreover, they can all take it to the rack. Turkoglu is a top-ten clutch shooter in the past ten years; Arenas has had his fair share of icy moments too.
This gives the Magic (like the Celtics/Lakers) the ability to cycle the ball until it falls into the right hands while also having a number one option (Turkoglu). They are left with a reliable man on each side of the court that they can trust with the ball. This is one of the most important holes that the Magic filled through their trades.
LeBron and Wade. Are you really giving it to anybody else? It is great to have two players that can take it to the hole or hit a jumper but what if they are defended well? This is what will happen when the Heat have to play the likes of Boston and/or Orlando in the playoffs. The league's elite will have their best defensive schemes setup down the stretch to stop these two guys. Are you gonna dish it to Bosh down low for the game-winner against Howard or Garnett? Probably not.
Forget game-winners. Down the stretch of playoff games, defenses are swarming. The Heat role player will need (need, need, need) to be able to hit some shots. If not, they won't stand a chance. In the current condition, it doesn't seem like the Heat have the kind of players that can come through when LeBron and Wade are pressed and in turn, they will be pressing. They certainly don't have a Ray Allen (not that anyone does) or a Derek Fisher.
The advantages that the Magic have over the Heat are quite similar to the advantages the Celtics have. The Magic/Celtics contest on Martin Luther King Day was a testament to this. Both teams have an arsenal of scorers, distinct interior presence, and a fully capable bench.
Both teams know what it takes to play in the big games and get it done. The additions that the Magic have made has turned them into a more rounded and well-crafted opponent against a team like the Celtics. Besides Howard, however, the Celtics still have very few match-up issues.
It is more than often the case that a rounded team of scorers is much better off than a team with only a few, regardless of how elite they may be. The Celtics and Magic (Lakers and Spurs) both have teams bred for the playoffs. A physical style, clutch-shooters, and experience.
The Heat will continue to make headlines (good or bad) while the Magic continue to up their cohesiveness. The Celtics will also be integrating Kendrick Perkins and Delonte West back into their scheme. Both teams should have their complete puzzle ready to go come April.