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Atlanta Hawks 86, Orlando Magic 84

In a game in which neither team did many things right offensively, the Atlanta Hawks managed to escape the Orlando Magic's late rally when Josh Smith sprinted in from the right corner to dunk home Joe Johnson's errant jumper as time expired for an 86-84 final. Smith's offensive rebound there was just Atlanta's third of the game, but it was also the one that counted the most, as the Magic were caught napping on a missed game-winning attempt for the second time this season; you'll recall that Miami's Michael Beasley flushed home a game-winning putback against Orlando back in November under very similar circumstances. Smith's heroics negate two spectacular plays by Vince Carter in the final minute: a driving dunk to cut Atlanta's lead to 82-81, as well as the three-pointer from the top of the arc that knotted the score at 84 with 9.9 seconds to play. The Hawks took advantage of an uncharacteristically poor outside shooting night by the Magic--they were 5-of-20 before Carter's tying shot--and got hot from the outside themselves, with Mike Bibby connecting on 4 of his 5 attempts and the team shooting 7-of-13 overall. Orlando countered its cold outside shooting by feeding Dwight Howard in the post against the undersized Al Horford and the typically overmatched Zaza Pachulia, but both players gave an exceptional effort and forced Howard out of his comfort zone. The Magic's franchise center missed 7 of his 11 field goal attempts, and didn't record a field goal on any of his numerous post-ups. Three of his baskets were alley-oop dunks, and the other came when he inadvertently clocked Hawks small forward Marvin Williams, alone on Howard Island, in the head with an elbow. He took another dribble and pounded the ball in. That, 5 offensive boards, and 11 foul shots in 16 tries, was all Howard contributed offensively.

Team Pace Efficiency eFG% FT Rate OReb% TO Rate
Magic 89 94.4 41.7% 33.3 20.5 14.6
Hawks 89 96.4 45.4% 22.4 7.1 12.3
Green denotes a stat better than the team's season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's season average.

You have to really credit Atlanta for this win. It shook off the Magic's early 15-2 lead and corrected its offense by making a more concerted effort to drive the ball at Howard and the rest of Orlando's interior defense. The Hawks didn't score against Orlando in a halfcourt setting until the 5:50 mark of the first quarter, when Jamal Crawford took a tentative-looking jumper from the right elbow. Not a great shot, but it proved to be a start. Atlanta owns the league's third-most efficient offense, and put it on display for portions of the first half. The ball moved around and found the soft spots in the Magic's defense. Horford sank uncontested 16-footers with Howard reluctant to leave the paint, and Bibby bombed away from the outside despite solid defense by Jameer Nelson and Jason Williams.

In an interview with sideline reporter Paul Kennedy at halftime, Magic assistant Steve Clifford noted that the Magic's transition defense was really lacking. The Hawks switch almost everything themselves defensively, he explained, which means that after a Magic miss, Orlando's players aren't necessarily near their defensive assignments, which creates mismatches heading the other way. Clifford said Orlando didn't do a good enough job communicating in transition, which gave the Hawks far too many open looks.

The Magic's offense was no great shakes either, and it's very difficult to beat the Hawks when Bibby's shot is falling. Poor percentages for every key Magic player save for Nelson, who shot 6-of-13 for a game-high 20 points. Howard, as I said, had far too difficult a time against the Hawks' post defenders unless he managed to slip free for a lob dunk. Carter wasn't eager to drive the ball with Smith in the game and settled for far too many jumpers. Rashard Lewis clanked all 4 of his three-point attempts, though the looks were clean, open, and within the flow of the offense. Simply put, the ball didn't move where it needed to for much of the night, which is an indictment of the Magic's decision-making as much as it is praise for Atlanta's defense.

Though Howard grabbed a season-high 24 rebounds and blocked 4 shots to go with his 19 points, Nelson was Orlando's player of the game, by far. He committed 4 turnovers, sure, but just 1 after halftime. And he made several key plays down the stretch: four straight points to cut Atlanta's lead to 78-75 with 3:16 to play; a rebound of Johnson's miss on the Hawks' ensuing possession; and a swipe of Al Horford's rebound of J.J. Redick's missed three-pointer, which allowed the Magic to reset their offense, ultimately leading to Howard's uncontested jam after he cast Marvin Williams aside.

In any close game, you can look back on any number of plays and try to build an argument around one blown one, saying if it went right, the outcome would have swung differently. I'm not doing that in this instance, but merely pointing out a sequence that really stands out from tonight's loss. With Orlando trailing by just 2 points early in the second half, Johnson missed a difficult runner with the shot clock nearly expired. Howard corralled the rebound with ease, as four Hawks had sprinted back on defense, with his teammates also changing ends. He looked to his left to outlet the ball to Nelson, but Johnson was too close to him for comfort. Howard looked right for Carter, but he was too far away to make an accurate pass and there was a Hawk near the passing lane--Crawford?--so he didn't throw there, either. So he turned back to Nelson and threw a lazy, one-handed outlet that Johnson picked off with hardly any effort. By this time, Nelson had crept closer to Howard to facilitate the outlet pass, and Johnson had trailed him. Consequently, Johnson needed just one dribble to score an easy two points and boost Atlanta's lead to 4.

Yup, missed opportunities are the story of the night for Orlando. In addition to that play, and the failure to put a body on Smith, who's already won one game with a putback jam at the buzzer, Howard committed another costly turnover late in the game. Orlando trailed by one and had a chance to take the lead with roughly 2 minutes to play after Horford lost the handle inside and Howard scooped it up. But Howard stumbled trying to spin baseline around Horford in transition, and lost control of the ball. Horford evened that score with Howard by grabbing the loose ball. And though Orlando tightened the screws on this Atlanta possession, forcing Smith into a contested jumper with the clock about to expire, it was for naught: Smith's shot fell to give Atlanta a three-point lead.

What I'm getting at is Howard might have had about the least impressive 24-rebound, 4-block outing in history... or something like that. From an execution standpoint, it was one of his worst games of the last several years.

There's really no shame in losing to a talented team like Atlanta, especially on its home floor, which it protects quite well. And really, under the circumstances--few threes, few solid shots for Howard--Orlando might be happy just to have been in the game late. Coach Stan Van Gundy was displeased with how Smith squirted free to score the winning shot, but he and I appear to be on the same page when it comes to evaluating this game as a whole: you will play good teams in this league, and you will lose. There's not a lot to get hung up on here.

Going forward, Orlando figures to be without backup small forward Mickael Pietrus for the next several games. He returned early on Monday from a sprained ankle he suffered last week against San Antonio, but re-aggravated the sprain tonight in true fluky, Pietrus fashion: just running up the court on defense, he tried to slow down, but his left foot just stopped cold instead of gradually, causing him to roll the ankle yet again. And after a reasonably easy post-All-Star break schedule, the Magic will face stiffer competition in the days ahead. After what should be an easy win against Minnesota on Friday, Orlando faces off against Western foes Denver, San Antonio, and Dallas in consecutive games before returning home to face Memphis, which has defeated it once this season already.