The NBA playoffs are here.
Dwight Howard is not.
With the All-Star center on the shelf for the remainder of 2011-12 with a back injury (and potentially done in Orlando), the Indiana Pacers, who hold the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference with a 42-24 record, are clear favorites to advance to the conference semifinals in getting past the Magic.
Here’s a quick preview as Game 1 gets set to tip off just after 7 p.m. today at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
How the Pacers will advance:
- Roy Hibbert vs. Howard-less Magic frontcourt. Howard’s absence is a huge relief for the Pacers and center Roy Hibbert in particular. Howard, winner of the last three NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards, often has had his way with Hibbert on the defensive end. Hibbert, who has experienced streaks of All-Star-type play and bad slumps in each of his four seasons in the league, often has been far from his best when up against Howard. Hibbert’s presumed matchup in this series is Glen “Big Baby” Davis, who has a thick build but is clearly inferior height-wise at 6-9. Hibbert has been far more assertive this season than in seasons past, especially in posting up and converting his hook shot. He’ll need to take full advantage of Howard’s absence.
- Continued effectiveness from leaders Danny Granger and David West. The Pacers’ captain (Granger) and most infectious veteran presence (West) have played lights-out basketball for much of April. Granger has provided right around 23 points per game when he’s been in and has been shooting at a high level both within and beyond the 3-point arc. West not only has helped Hibbert shoulder the scoring load down low; he’s also done his fair share of passing from the post. Again, with Howard out of the picture, these two guys (and Hibbert) become the marquee names in this series. They need to assert that.
- Bench scoring and perimeter defense. If there’s one facet in which this Magic team might still give the Pacers fits, it’s from downtown. Orlando has one of the best 3-point percentages (37.5) in the league. I’m sure Dwight Howard’s presence has much to do with that with all the attention he garners down low, but Ryan Anderson, Jason Richardson and J.J. Redick are all terrific shooters in their own rights. It’ll be up to the Pacers to zone in on this (final?) weapon in the Magic’s arsenal with solid perimeter defense — Paul George is rapidly emerging in that area — and reliable play from the second unit that results in points. The bench has been suspect in its ability to score lately, which may have to do with George Hill’s being promoted to starting point guard and Darren Collison’s recovery from injury, but pretty much everyone in the regular rotation minus Lou Amundson is a threat offensively.
All in all, I don’t see the Pacers struggling much in this series without Dwight Howard to worry about. Pacers in five.