The Orlando Magic host the Atlanta Hawks on Friday in a key Eastern Conference matchup with playoff implications, but they'll likely have to do so without All-Star center Dwight Howard, who is still suffering from a sore back. "I don't think I'm going to play," Howard told the media following Thursday's practice. Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy pegged Howard's chances of playing as "50/50."
Orlando and Atlanta have identical 34-24 records with just eight games remaining. The Hawks own the tiebreaker over the Magic, so Orlando must finish with a better record than Atlanta to earn a higher playoff seed. Both clubs are battling the resurgent Boston Celtics, also 34-24, for postseason positioning. Boston, the current Atlanta Division winner, cannot be seeded lower than fourth if it clinches the Atlantic crown.
Now in his eighth season, Howard is averaging 20.6 points, a league-best 14.5 rebounds, and 2.1 blocked shots for Orlando. He posted 27 points, 15.5 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks against Atlanta, his hometown team, in the 2011 Playoffs; the Hawks prevailed in the six-game series, eliminating the Magic in the quarterfinals for the first time in Van Gundy's tenure. They won the first two meetings between the teams since the playoffs by a combined seven points.