When you’re Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy, and you have a player that averaged 18 points and 13 rebounds during the regular season, it isn’t terribly difficult to come up with a team game plan: Get the ball to Dwight Howard.
That plan took a serious hit for the Magic in their first round series against the Charlotte Bobcats, as Howard consistently stayed in foul trouble. He fouled out of two games, and he had five fouls in two other games. He averaged just nine points and nine rebounds in that series, although he still mustered a whopping five blocks per game.
After the Magic’s 114-71 victory over the Atlanta Hawks in the game one of the second round, Van Gundy’s game plan once again looked productive. Howard played smarter on both ends of the floor, and although he only played 29 minutes total, he still put up 21 points, 12 rebound and five blocked shots. With more shots (he only took 10) and a better free throw percentage (50%) that point total could have very well increased–but the Magic didn’t need it.
The Atlanta Hawks aren’t lucky enough to have a player of Dwight Howard’s caliber on their roster. Their main players are Joe Johnson, Jamal Crawford, Al Horford and Josh Smith and on any given night, one of these players can get hot, and lead their team to victory.
But as was the case last night, when none of the aformentioned main players can step up and have a meaningful game, and none of the bench players seems to have that shooting touch, the Atlanta Hawks (especially on the road) can and will get blown out of the gym.
First there was constantly one-on-one play instead of ball movement, then Smith and Horford got frustrated and started barking with the refs, and then the Hawks found themselves trailing big en route to the 43 point loss.
The sad part about what happened last night, is that it could have all been avoided with one simple concept: coaching.
Coach Mike Woodson, who seemingly has been on the hot seat since his tenure with the Hawks began five years ago, did not do a good job of coaching last night. He coached like a man who had not faced the Magic before rather than a man who had seen this team four times during the regular season; he coached like a man who did not take a peek at the Magic/ Bobcats series, when coach Larry Brown’s sent cutters in the lane to get Howard in the foul trouble; Woodson coached like a man without a plan, and he basically admitted as much after the game.
“I didn’t expect Orlando to play Howard as long as they did,” Woodson told the media last night. “We have to adjust to that Thursday and see how we play.”
Van Gundy’s plan in the first half was to feed the ball to Dwight Howard in the post. This got the Hawks’ big men in foul trouble, it boosted Howard’s confidence on offense, and it gave him the confidence to play a little smarter on the defensive end of the floor. That’s why Howard played so much.
Coach Woodson’s game plan should have been to feed the ball in the post to Al Horford, Josh Smith, Zaza Pachulia, and maybe even Marvin Williams as well. This approach would have almost certainly got Howard in foul trouble, and it would have forced the entire Magic team to collapse a bit on the inside. That collapse would give the Hawks shooters open shots, and cause further problems for Orlando. This almost certainly would have cut down on Howard’s minutes.
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson is in the process of using this very inside/out strategy against the Utah Jazz right now, and considering they are up 2-0 in their series, it must be a successful one. Granted, Jackson is mainly using it to exploit Utah’s lack of an inside presence. Woodson would be using that strategy to get Howard out of the game first, and to open the floor for his players second.
There is a reason why Coach Woodson is constantly in a tenuous position as head coach of the Atlanta Hawks. The criticism is that he seemingly has no control over the team. During the regular season they get by on talent and natural ability, but in the playoffs, where coaching adjustments can often make or break a series, Woodson seems to continually fall short.
In round one, his team nearly lost to a Milwaukee team that was led by a rookie (Brandon Jennings) and that was missing Andrew Bogut and Michael Redd. They pulled the series out in seven games, and the consensus was that a wakeup call had been placed, and now the Hawks were ready to make their mark–then they got blown out by 43 points last night.
With game 2 of this Hawks/Magic series on Thursday night, Coach Woodson has one off day to come up with a plan to counter Van Gundy and the Orlando Magic. If he succeeds, his team is right back in the series and he can return to Atlanta for game 3 looking like a genius. If he fails and his team goes down 0-2, Woodson will rightfully be back on that hot seat.