Surprisingly enough, the Atlanta Hawks were competitive for much of game two. They were able to move the ball while limiting mistakes, actually managed to get to the rim and the line with some consistency, and scored almost 100 points against the Magic’s defense. They made six of their 11 three-point attempts. They shot 97% on their 31 free-throw attempts. They had twice as many offensive rebounds as Orlando did. Jamal Crawford and Al Horford both had bounce-back games.
In spite of all of that, the Hawks are going back to Atlanta with a 2-0 deficit. Why? First of all, some of Atlanta’s bad habits reared their ugly heads in the second half. More importantly, it’s almost impossible to beat Orlando when they play like they did on Thursday night.
In the first quarter, the Magic went to Dwight Howard early and often. The Hawks had absolutely no way to stop him. Howard got position, made a quick move, and got a basket, alley-oop pass, or a foul. Nothing the Hawks did made any difference. In the first quarter alone, Howard scored 18 points on 6-6 shooting from the field and 6-8 shooting from the line while drawing nine fouls on seven different Atlanta defenders. Against the Hawks’ undersized frontline, Dwight Howard suddenly looks less clumsy and frustrated and more like an unstoppable engine of doom who dislikes referees and loves sleeves.
With Howard looking unstoppable and Jameer Nelson and Rashard Lewis making everything they threw up from the perimeter, it looked like the Magic were on their way to another easy victory. The Hawks had other plans. They played well enough offensively to weather the storm in the first quarter, going inside themselves and making open threes when the Magic rotated. Howard went to the bench after picking up his second foul early in the second quarter, and Atlanta went on a quick 10-2 run while he sat to take the lead. When Howard came back into the game, Atlanta hit enough open mid-range shots to keep the lead, and went into the break leading by eight.
The turning point in the game came early in the third quarter. While converting an and-1, Howard got a bloody nose that sent him to the locker room because of the “blood rule.” With a six-point lead and Howard off the floor, Atlanta had a golden opportunity to push the lead to double-digits. They didn’t. The Hawks inexplicably took their foot off the gas pedal, committing lazy turnovers on the offensive end and failing to play tough defense when the Magic had the ball. When Howard checked back in two minutes after leaving the floor, the Magic had cut the lead to one, and Atlanta no longer had control of the game.
Orlando took the ball to the ball to the basket aggressively in the third quarter, scoring 35 points in the period. Atlanta hit enough shots to keep themselves in the game, but a buzzer-beating three by Jameer Nelson gave Orlando a one-point lead going into the fourth quarter.
After executing on offense all game long, Atlanta finally went cold in the fourth quarter. Joe Johnson started holding the ball at the top of the key for way too long, and the Hawks only scored four points in the first 4:59 of the final quarter.
That’s what opened the door for Orlando. Their outside shooting is what allowed them to barge through it. With 8:48 remaining in the game, Vince Carter hit a three to put the Magic up by six. That’s what started the barrage. Over the next four minutes, the Magic hit five more jumpers, with three of them coming from beyond the arc. When the dust had settled, the Magic were up 16 with just under five minutes left to play. Game over. You know the Magic are going to have a run of outside shooting like once or twice every game — on Thursday night, the run came at the worst possible time for Atlanta.
A few other notes:
-Dwight Howard had a monster game. 29 points, 17 rebounds, and only one missed shot from the floor. If he can stay on the floor (39 minutes on Thursday) and make his free throws (13-18 from the line), he’s all but unstoppable. Unanimous All-NBA selections don’t happen by accident.
-Vince Carter looked great in the second half. Not only was he making some very tough shots, but he was aggressive when running the pick-and-roll and unleashed a few dunks I didn’t know he had in him anymore. Every now and then, he gives you glimpses of why he’s considered one of the most talented players to pick up a basketball. As Malcolm Gladwell observed in 2006, it’s easy to see why Vince remains so respected and feared in certain circles — he bases his game around things that almost nobody else can do.
-Give Al Horford a lot of credit. He looked to attack when Gortat was in the game, and had a lot of success with that little 15-footer from the right side when Howard was patrolling the paint. 24/10 for Horford, on 9-13 shooting from the field.
-The Hawks outscored the Magic by four points during the 34 minutes Jamal Crawford was in the game. They were outscored by 18 points during the 14 minutes Mike Bibby was in the game.
-Joe Johnson is not making a great case for himself as a max free agent right now. Someone will end up giving him the money, though.
-Josh Smith did a good job of being aggressive, but finished with a 6-15 shooting night and five turnovers. He needs to play much more disciplined basketball if the Hawks want to have a chance — some of those turnovers were pure carelessness, and Hubie Brown caught Smith walking back on defense more than once.
The Hawks should give themselves a pat on the back for showing that they can compete with this Magic team, even on the road. If the Magic didn’t play a nearly perfect offensive game, Atlanta could easily have stolen this one. The Hawks are much better at home than they are on the road; we’ll see if they can make this a series by taking both games in Atlanta.