Bloggin’ Magic: Previewing Nets-Magic

Dwight Howard Orlando Magic, Brook Lopez Nets
Neither of these two will play tonight! (AP)

Dwight Howard Orlando Magic, Brook Lopez Brooklyn Nets
Neither of these two will play tonight! (AP)
The Brooklyn Nets travel to sunny Florida tonight to take on the Orlando Magic for the third time in the first month of the season. After dismantling them in their first two matchups, the Nets look to make the third time a charm, though they’ll be without their star center Brook Lopez.

Joining me to talk tonight’s Nets-Magic matchup is Noam Schiller, contributor to ESPN TrueHoop Orlando Magic affiliate blog Magic Basketball. I don’t know many folks that watch more basketball or know the game more intimately than Noam, and if you’re a hoops fan he’s definitely worth your follow and read.

We’re going, as per usual, in one-on-one style: I’ve asked Noam three questions that have piqued my curiosity about the Orlando Magic, and in turned he’s asked me three questions on your Brooklyn Nets.

Noam on the Orlando Magic

Devin: This is the third matchup between Orlando and Brooklyn — one ugly blowout, one ugly close win. Should we expect anything not ugly tonight?

Noam: Well, you’re virtually guaranteed 28 minutes of Nikola Vucevic, who has a face that is not ugly as much as it is visually flabbergasting. It looks like it was generated by a computer. I half expect the ball to go through his head at some point to reveal that he is indeed the result of a glitch in NBA 2K13.

It pretty much ends there, though. You are probably aware of the Brooklyn Nets’ 30th place pace ranking, and while the first two games in the season series came without Jameer Nelson, I’m not sure he’s enough to prevent the Nets from dictating the tempo in this one. Meanwhile, Orlando’s offense has been a choppy affair to say the least, with long 2s by the bundle and Glen Davis (GLEN DAVIS!) leading the team in usage rate. My recommendation would be to hope for as much J.J. Redick as possible – from a watchability standpoint, his ball movement has been the one redeeming factor for this Magic team so far.

Devin: There aren’t often many bright spots for a team that’s 5-9, but who’s played well? Does anything give you hope, or is it just “pray for Nerlens Noel”?

Noam: It’s the little things. Moe Harkless is ridiculously fun in a rookie-Anthony-Randolph kind of way: on any given possession, he can do virtually anything, for better or for worse. I can only hope he doesn’t follow in the steps of sophomore-and-beyond-Anthony-Randolph; Josh McRoberts has been surprisingly competent in limited minutes, and I suspect his monstrosity of a season last year was just post lockout flukiness. Jameer Nelson has looked pretty good since returning, though his numbers won’t blow you away; Andrew Nicholson has been pretty bad at everything except shooting, but I like how he’s shooting; E’Twaun Moore is taking waaaay too many shots, making too few of them, and not doing much else, but he looks like a decent lower-rung NBA rotation player in the John Lucas “gunning 3rd point guard” mold, which is decent for a waiver wire pickup, I guess. I’m grasping for straws here.

But what I’ve liked the most is that the team is competing. So often in this league you see a team entering a season that was doomed from the start and playing like they know it (you’ve had your fair share of those in New Jersey, I’m afraid). The Magic may not be in every game, but they’re in more than you’d expect, and they’ve done a good job of keeping their heads up. I hope the fight is a Jacque Vaughn staple and not just a preamble to 60 games of tanking.

Devin: One thing I noticed while looking through Synergy is that the Magic are top-5 in the NBA defending back-to-the-basket looks in the post and defending spot-up shooters. Is that a Jacque Vaughn system thing, a personnel thing, or just early luck?

Noam: I’m very hesitant to credit systematic changes 14 games in, for better or worse. It’s just too early, specifically for something like spot up numbers – Magic opponents are only shooting 31.9% from three so far, which would have ranked third in the league last year, and it’s impossible to differentiate luck from intention. It should be noted, however, that the Magic are allowing only 29.7% on threes from the corner, which has long been a Gregg Popovich staple, and worths monitoring for a team run by a Pop disciple.

As for the post defense – I definitely think personnel is heavily involved. Davis and Vucevic have been getting the majority of the Orlando frontcourt minutes and have both been phenomenal in this regard early on, ranking in the top 40 according to Synergy. I think they’ll slip somewhat as the season progresses, but between Davis’s strength and low center of gravity, and Vuc’s length and mobility, I do think a lot of their success is very real.

Devin on the Brooklyn Nets

Noam: The biggest concern about the Brooklyn Nets was always defense. Well, lo and behold, they’re 11th in defensive efficiency and have stifled strong offenses like the Clippers, Knicks and Celtics during this win streak. Is this for real?

Devin: Can I say yes and no? They’re better defensively than people expected, and they’ve had a few great games against tough teams, but I don’t think they’re this good. They’ve started to adjust to their system a little more each game and even threw a surprise press at the Celtics in the second quarter of Wednesday night’s game. Deron Williams and Joe Johnson have ramped up a bit defensively on the wings, but you could argue Reggie Evans is the defensive MVP so far — he’s a professional yeller and has cut off pick-and-roll lanes like no other Nets player so far. So I don’t know if they’ll end the season 11th, but I don’t think they’ll end 22nd, either.

Noam: Jerry Stackhouse? Andray Blatche? Wasn’t the Brooklyn Nets bench supposed to be horrible? WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING?!

Devin: It’s amazing to watch. Every Nets bench player in their regular “Bench Mob” has significant strengths they’re maximizing, and weaknesses that are getting filled by someone else. It’s really a complete collection of roles. Andray Blatche is a slow defender and a tunnel-vision scorer, but has hit the boards with an Evans-like intensity and has gotten himself free for some easy looks (notably in the fourth quarter against the Celtics, when he hit all four of his shots on easy putbacks and layups created for him at the rim). Evans is a rebound gobbler and has taken Avery’s defensive system to heart, and the team’s markedly better defensively with him on the court. C.J. Watson has fallen off after a hot start, but he’s a threat from deep that teams can’t ignore. Jerry Stackhouse has hit corner threes, relieve pressure, and invented palindromes. He’s not forcing anything. It’s really, really fun to watch, in a way a Nets bench hasn’t been fun to watch in a long time, if ever.

Noam: Brook Lopez is top 10 in the league in PER and looks absolutely magnificent offensively. What have the Brooklyn Nets been doing differently to work towards getting him going? Or is this just health?

Devin: Shortly after Noam sent me this question, the Nets announced that Lopez would miss the Florida trip with a mild sprain in his right foot. So thanks for the curse, Noam. But I think it’s a combination of those things. Firstly, Lopez is absolutely playing to his ability. This isn’t luck. He’s hitting shots he should hit, creating good looks for himself, and developed a synergy with Deron Williams, who’s gotten him tons of easy looks right at the basket. The Nets have also made a concerted effort to get him the ball quickly — early on it seemed like after every first quarter Lopez would already have 8 or 10 points.

When Lopez signed his mini-maximum contract, what people seemed to forget as they criticized it is that when he’s healthy, he’s really, really good.

Now please stay healthy.

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