The shorthanded Orlando Magic battled hard against the Atlanta Hawks Wednesday evening, but lost the game, 85-82, and season series, 3-1, as they couldn't contain Josh Smith or find ways to score consistently against a surprisingly stout Atlanta defense. Jameer Nelson scored 20 points to lead the Magic, who shot just 41.6 percent from the field and 30.4 percent from three-point range in their fourth poor offensive performance of the season versus the Hawks. Worryingly, Jason Richardson, Orlando's second-leading scorer on the season, shot 1-of-7 from the floor and scored 3 points in 42 minutes of work. With reserve shooting guard J.J. Redick and wing Quentin Richardson unavailable, Orlando needed more offense from Jason Richardson, but he couldn't provide it.
Indeed, the Magic lost this game at the offensive end of the floor. Kelly Dwyer of Yahoo! Sports faults their gameplan, as they "chose to walk things up and attempt a predictable low post or screen and roll attack with Jameer Nelson and Dwight Howard" rather than pushing the tempo. Defensively, Orlando played a fairly sound game, despite yielding 26 points on 10-of-18 shooting to Josh Smith. The athletic combo forward shot 5-of-10 from 16 feet and beyond, and 3-of-4 on three-pointers, so the Magic gave him the shots every team except his own should want him to take. The difference is he made them on this night.
After the game, the focus shifted toward Hawks center Jason Collins, a situational starter against Orlando tasked with defending Howard one-on-one. Collins drew two quick fouls on Howard in the first quarter, taking him out of the game and forcing Orlando to adjust. And even when he played, the Magic's MVP candidate wasn't as effective as usual. Taking 13 shots and 15 free throws, Howard managed only 17 points. Collins played just 18 minutes--the fewest of any starter for either club--but nonetheless made a huge difference.
There are some mitigating factors for Orlando, most obviously its injuries: a healthy Redick or Quentin Richardson could have lightened Jason Richardson's load and kept the ineffective Earl Clark (6 minutes, 0 points, 2 rebounds) on the bench entirely. And losing by three, on the road, with Ryan Anderson shooting 3-of-10 on threes doesn't seem so bad. But the fact that Orlando didn't put up even one offensive game above league average against the Hawks this year has to concern them as they prepare for their first-round playoff series; though not mathematically a certainty, the Hawks and Magic are incredibly likely to meet when the playoffs start in mid-April. And Atlanta, less than a year after the Magic beat them by an average of 25.3 points per game in the playoffs, appears to have solved its Orlando problem.