Jamal Crawford has been something else in the NBA Playoffs, averaging almost 24 points a game in the Atlanta Hawks' 2-1 series lead over the Orlando Magic. With Al Horford struggling to make a big impact on the scoreboard and Dwight Howard continuing to dominate the paint, Atlanta needed superlative performance from its guards to survive this series. The Hawks have gotten just that; Crawford has led the way from the bench, shooting almost 60 percent from long-range and scoring a point for every 75 seconds on the floor. Joe Johnson has been great, too, averaging 20 points, 5.7 rebounds and five assists a game.
And somehow, some way, a team that lost four straight to the Magic by an average of 25 points last year is up 2-1, with a real chance to win this series.
It's a magical turn of events, though the Magic would describe it as nightmarish. It's hard to pin the reversal on just a couple factors, but the shooting of Crawford and Johnson sure matter. Each shot well below 40 percent in last year's postseason, which included a grueling first-round series against the Bucks. Orlando's perimeter defense has certainly suffered due to trades and free agency; Mickael Pietrus and Matt Barnes, in particular, were vital pieces in Stan Van Gundy's rotation, each contributing much more than, say, Jason Richardson, Gilbert Arenas and Hedo Turkoglu on defense. The moves to shed Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter are coming home to roost for Orlando, a little earlier than expected.
But that's only part of it. Atlanta's defense has shut down Orlando's three-point shooting; the Magic have hit just 19-of-99 from long-range. Given how many threes the Magic put up, this is untenable. The Hawks have made a point to stay at home on Orlando's top gunners, and it's working. Howard is averaging 33 points per game on 67 percent shooting, sure. But the Magic are shooting 19 percent from long-range. That trade-off is working beautifully.
Better shooting, better three-point prevention -- is it that simple? Are we underrating Larry Drew's impact? Is Kirk Hinrich's defense on Jameer Nelson -- as compared to that of Mike Bibby last year -- the difference-maker? The Atlanta Hawks have created a very long list of questions!
If they win again on Sunday, the questions will shift to Orlando, along with the series. This is not a good time for the Magic to crumble, not with the abhorrent rumors about Dwight's future already hanging like a bad stench. The Magic need to pull something from up their sleeves to reverse this series and get back on track.