Hawks Play to Final Buzzer to Clinch Playoff Spot, Avoid Sweep

Orlando was no longer coasting through the game, in erasing an 11-point deficit in about six minutes. Vince Carter’s cold-blooded 3-pointer with eight seconds left made things look pretty good for the Magic considering how tight the defense had been during the comeback.

With Atlanta continuing to rely on one-on-one offense late in games, Joe Johnson was the choice for one final shot. Carter blanketed him and forced him into a difficult shot fading away toward the sideline. Dwight Howard had come over to help deter Johnson from getting to the basket.

That little bit of space may have opened a lane. For as the ball bounced off the rim no good, it was Josh Smith who swooped in and slammed the ball back in as time expired. There was no doubt it was good in time. Orlando failed to sweep Atlanta in the season series and all but lock up the Southeast Division, falling to Atlanta 86-84 on Wednesday in Atlanta. The Hawks cut the Magic’s lead in the division to 3.5 games with the win.

Smith’s dunk truly epitomized Orlando’s game tonight. The Magic failed to play to the buzzer, or at the very least at the highest level for the entirety of the game.

After racing out to a 15-2 lead, the Magic hit what seemed like cruise control. The Hawks were in the lead at halftime and built their lead throughout the second half.

The offense was incredibly stagnant with Dwight Howard struggling to make shots (when he was not getting fouled) and the other players choosing to stay on the perimeter. Luckily for Orlando, Atlanta’s offense was just as inefficient and Howard did more than enough to deter any attack on the basket. The Hawks did a better job moving the ball and trying to work inside-out and that is what got them the lead.

But with time running down and a double-digit deficit staring them in the face, the Magic finally made their move. Jameer Nelson began knifing his way through the defense and pulling up for jumpers that finally went in. Vince Carter was doing the same. And thanks to Dwight Howard drawing three fouls early in the quarter, Orlando was in the bonus for almost the entire fourth quarter.

This helped the Magic erase the Hawks’ lead and give them a chance to win at the end. Something that would have been very hard to believe watching how Atlanta built its lead.

Orlando did it though, a credit to its ability to erase almost any lead and generate offense even on poor nights — and this one was pretty bad.

Some numbers to show how bad the Magic played offensively. Orlando shot 37.5 percent from the floor and six of 21 from beyond the arc. More interestingly, Howard shot four of 11 from the field and was pushed out of his usual spots. This was his worst shooting performance since his 3-of-9 performance against Miami last week and his 1-of-7 performance against Miami on Feb. 28.

It is not very often Howard struggled from the field that bad. It certainly showed how much the whole team was struggling (although Orlando won both of the games listed above). Howard made up for it by hitting 11 of his 16 free throw attempts.

The Magic did have 20 assists (the season average is 19.3) on their 27 field goals, which is a pretty good number. But obviously 27 field goals is well below the 36.3 field goals the team was averaging entering tonight’s game. That explains a lot of Orlando’s offensive struggles. Or at least the 84 total points the Magic scored tonight.

They at least got to the line, hitting 24 of 31 free throws on the game. Getting to the line was a sure way to get some points and get hte offense going during the fourth quarter comeback.

But it was a testament to Orlando’s defense that the team not only came back in this one, but kept itself in the game despite shooting below 40 percent. The Hawks did not get much going offensively aside from their 30-point second quarter. Atlanta shot 40.8 percent from the floor and built its lead by shooting seven of 13 from beyond the arc.

The Hawks had six players in double figures, led by Joe Johnson’s 17 points. Smith had 15 and Mike Bibby had 14 points. Obviously no one got out of control scoring in this one, especially when the Hawks reverted to relying on Johnson or Jamal Crawford breaking down their man one-on-one throughout the fourth quarter.

Howard may have really been struggling offensively, but he was certainly the main force defensively. He had 10 rebounds well before halftime and finished with 24 on the game. Orlando limited Atlanta to three offensive rebounds (one was obviously the game winner) and Howard was a big part of that.

Howard is where all the defense begins and ends for Orlando. That goes without saying. And his effort kept the Magic in the game tonight.

It is hard to gauge how to feel about this one. It is pretty clear, Orlando can beat Atlanta in almost any type of game. It is difficult seeing the Magic struggle this much from the field or seeing Howard struggle that much from the field in any subsequent matchup. The comeback in the fourth quarter was a very encouraging sign against a very good team.

But it is also discouraging to see the Magic not just blow out the Hawks like they did in the three previous meetings. Maybe the lid was truly on the rim or boredom finally set in — the team still seems out of sync after a long layoff between Thursday’s win over Miami and Monday’s win over Philadelphia.

Either way, this Hawks team is one the Magic will see in the postseason now that the Hawks are officially in the postseason.

Philip Rossman-Reich

About Philip Rossman-Reich

Philip Rossman-Reich is the managing editor for Crossover Chronicles and Orlando Magic Daily. You can follow him on twitter @OMagicDaily