The Orlando Magic shook off a poor-shooting first half against the Atlanta Hawks and rallied to win ugly, 88-82. Playing in front of his hometown crowd, Dwight Howard led the Magic in all 5 major statistical categories with 21 points, 23 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, and 4 blocked shots, almost single-handedly leading them to victory. J.J. Redick arguably outplayed the Hawks' own J.J., Joe Johnson, by contributing 11 points on 4-of-9 shooting (3-of-5 from three-point range) in 24 minutes off the bench. Johnson led Atlanta with 21 points, but shot an inefficient 6-of-20 from the field.
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This game probably should have been a blowout win in Atlanta's favor. The Magic got off to a poor start, but it was not due to anything the Hawks were doing. By and large, the Magic got the shots they wanted against Atlanta's weak defense; the shots just clanged off the front rim. Don't look at Orlando's poor shooting percentage--38% from the field, 30% from three-point range--and assume it was lazy or executed poorly. The effort was there, and the Magic were rewarded when the shots started to fall, specifically late in the third period. But we'll get to that just a bit later. After the jump, to be more specific.
Howard turned in one of the best individual Magic performances of the season. He made an early impact on the game with 8 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals, and 3 blocks in the opening period; that's a good game for most centers in this league. Howard did it in 12 minutes. And as impressive as his defense was, the offensive end is where he really boosted the Magic. All 5 of Howard's assists led to three-pointers. Maybe it's more a result of the Hawks' utter refusal to alter their double-team schemes than it is a reflection of Howard's improvement as a passer, but one can't argue with the results. With the rest of the starting lineup--that'd be Rafer Alston, Courtney Lee, Rashard Lewis, and Hedo Turkoglu--combining to shoot 17-of-49, the Magic needed Howard to generate some offense by scoring or getting fouled. The next time someone says Dwight Howard can't score in crunch time or create a shot for himself, kindly show that person this game tape.
Yet it is worth noting that Howard shot 6-for-12, which is below his average. Hawks coach Mike Woodson absolutely baffles me. On a night when the Magic's wide-open three-pointers aren't dropping, he still elected to double-team Howard despite the fact that Al Horford had some success pushing him off the block and, in one instance, stuffing his hook shot at the point of release. Were I coaching the Hawks, I would have elected to play Howard one-on-one and force the Magic's perimeter players to shoot contested three-pointers. Instead, they got enough open looks to work themselves into a groove. That was about all she wrote.
Atlanta was a mess offensively, and it's hard to tell if it's a result of anything the Magic were doing. As the Magic's broadcast crew of David Steele and Matt Guokas repeatedly pointed out, Atlanta elected to play a one-on-one offensive game, without many passes or much playmaking. Orlando's one-on-one perimeter defense was spot-on, and Howard did his usual controlling of the lane. The Hawks' only chance to win this game was to hope the Magic never woke up offensively, because their own lazy offensive effort was not going to get it done.
Okay, I just have to say it: Mike Bibby is just a hideous defender. That's not a revelation by any means, but even Anthony Johnson--not the fastest runner or craftiest dribbler--was able to leave him in the dust with a simple hesitation dribble in transition, leading to an easy layup. I'm not sure how many other point guards would have been similarly fooled by Johnson's move, but let's give him credit: that bucket brought the Magic to within a point, 61-60, with a minute to play in the third period. Just 4:45 before that play, Atlanta held a 10-point lead and had the crowd on its side. A few long jumpers for Orlando, coupled with one-and-done possessions on the Hawks' end, let the Magic get back into the game.
Speaking of Magic point guards, Rafer Alston had another Jameer Nelson-esque game. He's become quite adept at running the pick-and-roll with Howard, and tonight even noodled around the lane, Nelson style, before shooting or passing. The difference between the two, other than Nelson's standing as a superior shooter, is Alston favors a one-handed teardrop off the dribble a la Tony Parker, while Nelson would rather pull-up and shoot an actual jump shot. Otis Smith's acquisition of Alston looks even better with each passing day.
Not exactly an impressive win for Orlando, but let's at least respect that the Magic continued to play their game even after a rocky, slow start. Coming off an emotional win over the league's best team, it would have been easy for them to go through the motions tonight. But they didn't; they gave an honest-to-goodness effort, and it's a credit to their attitude and the coaching of Stan Van Gundy. Nicely done.
Orlando has two days off before playing its final Western Conference road game of the season in Houston on Tuesday. It's also the Magic's final regular-season game against a team with a winning record. Look forward to it.