The Hawks saw their eight-point lead crumbling around them. This was a familiar refrain for the No. 5 team in the Eastern Conference. Good enough to be good enough. Not good enough to be, well good enough.
No one can figure out exactly what makes Atlanta tick or what causes the team to crumble. But for whatever reason coach Larry Drew went small allowing Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson to help Orlando claw back into the game and tie it at 82. It seemed like the world was falling apart around the Hawks — another gut-wrenching loss to those Magic.
Maybe Atlanta’s 85-82 win over Orlando to take the season series 3-1 is a sign Atlanta is going to turn things around and give Orlando more than it bargained for in the first round. Or maybe it was a sign the Hawks had just enough to defeat a depleted Magic team that looked listless and uninspired until it was gut check time and a win seemed nearly completely out of reach.
Joe Johnson hit a runner with about 17 seconds left to break the tie. Jameer Nelson got into the paint, but an awkward runner missed and Hedo Turkoglu failed to make the game-tying 3-pointer and the Magic could only walk off the court knowing another game may have slipped from their hands.
It is probably not worth reading too much into this game when it comes to predicting what might happen in the playoffs. But it is hard to ignore how Atlanta successfully defeated Orlando three times this season. That was the point Stan Van Gundy seemed to be harping on postgame, admitting that very little went right for the Magic.
It started four minutes into the game when Dwight Howard picked up his second foul. Howard was hampered with foul trouble throughout the night and it definitely threw the Magic offense — and defense — off kilter.
The Hawks ended up shooting 47.1 percent from the floor and 6 for 15 from beyond the arc. Their offensive efficiency did not come because Atlanta did anything particularly special on that end of the floor. The Hawks made shots — Josh Smith scored 26 points on 10-for-18 shooting on mostly semi-contested mid-range jumpers and 3-for-4 shooting from beyond the arc — and worked hard on the glass. Smith’s 63.9 percent effective field goal percentage is well above his 49.9 percent effective field goal percentage. Smith likely will not shoot that well again.
What is not an anomaly was how the Hawks outworked the Magic for long stretches. When Atlanta took control of the game and went up by six in the third quarter it was becuase of players like Zaza Pachulia getting to the offensive glass — he had three of Atlanta’s seven offensive rebounds — and frustrating Howard inside.
Van Gundy had high praise for the job Jason Collins did on Howard keeping him in check for much of the game. Howard finished the night with 17 points and 13 rebounds, but was hardly dominant. He struggled to get going until the fourth quarter. He seemed to come alive when his team was down and after he picked up his fifth foul with about eight minutes to play.
It was a good little spurt, but you could still tell he was being careful with his foul trouble.
Orlando shot only 41.6 percent but were able to stay in the game because of second-chance opportunities (especially in the fourth quarter) and the team’s ability to force turnovers. The team did not look completely sure of itself throughout the night.
There were moments where Jameer Nelson was able to take over and moments where Hedo Turkoglu took over. Nelson led the team with 20 points on 9-for-17 shooting, looking very good on his jumper in his first game back after spraining his knee. He seemed to overdribble a bit when he got in the lane, but had just one turnover. Turkoglu added 17 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
Chalk this one down as another puzzling result for sure. Orlando had the opportunity to win and perhaps take some hope from Atlanta. Instead the Hawks were able to control the tempo — a pace of 80 is not going to make the ESPN cameras happy in late April — and execute at the end.
Will this game mean much come Playoff time? Not likely. Still, it allowed some doubt to creep in. If Orlando does not play hard for 48 minutes, a team like Atlanta is more than capable of picking it off.