The Orlando Magic battled back from an early 14-point deficit against the Atlanta Hawks on Friday night, but couldn't stop Atlanta down the stretch, losing Game Three of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series, 88-84, and falling into a 2-1 hole against the lower-seeded Hawks. Jamal Crawford scored 12 of his game-high 23 points in the fourth quarter, including the clinching basket with 5.7 seconds remaining: a deep, straightaway three-pointer, off-the-dribble, over a hard contest by Jameer Nelson.
He banked it in.
Though Magic players not named Dwight Howard showed some life offensively for the first time in this series, they had no answer for Crawford or Joe Johnson defensively. To be fair, there's nothing more Nelson could have done against Crawford on the winning basket, and we can fairly classify virtually all his field-goal attempts as "poor," but Crawford's made a career out of making difficult shots like that one.
|Green denotes a stat better than the team's regular-season average;
red denotes a stat worse than the team's regular-season average.
The Hawks built a 14-point lead in the second period, mostly with Howard on the bench, and the Magic never really recovered. An outstanding defensive third period bought them to within four points, and a top-of-the-circle jumper from Brandon Bass gave them a one-point lead with a minute remaining. On Atlanta's next possession, the Hawks leveraged the Magic's defense against itself. Stationing Al Horford on the weak side, the Hawks fed Johnson the ball in the right short-corner, anticipating the help-defense attention he'd draw. The ball swung to Horford just inside the arc, and he drilled the shot--with no Orlando player anywhere near him, due to the over-rotating--to give Atlanta the lead for good.
With 46 seconds remaining, the Magic had possession, trailed by one, and had a decent chance to get a good shot up in a two-for-one situation. They failed to execute. Hedo Turkoglu ran a high screen-and-roll with Dwight Howard, the Magic's go-to play when they absolutely need to score. Turkoglu drove to his right toward the baseline, tiptoed along it, and continued dribbling toward the corner; he completely missed Howard, who dove to the rim and could have had a dunk.
The Magic's possession ended when, confronted with Horford's chest-to-chest defense and after using his dribble, Turkoglu uncorked a wild three-pointer with eight seconds remaining on the shot clock.
The first question coach Stan Van Gundy faced in his postgame press conference concerned that shot. Before OrlandoMagic.com's John Denton could finish, Van Gundy cut him off. "Horrible shot," he said. The coach is absolutely right.
Despite more fluke shooting from Crawford, the Hawks played good-to-great offensively in every quarter except the third. Johnson jacked his fair share of long twos after going one-on-one, sure, but he also made a more concerted effort to drive the ball into Orlando's defense. I "into Orlando's defense" instead of "to the basket" because he tossed in at least four floaters, and not any layups that I can remember, thus mitigating Howard's shot-blocking presence.
Further, the team had great energy, particularly in the first half. They were quicker to loose balls and seemed to have a step or two on Orlando.
Finally, the Hawks managed to guard Howard competently even with defensive specialist Jason Collins on the bench. Indeed, former Magic center Zaza Pachulia gave Howard almost all he could handle in the low post, forcing Howard to work exceptionally hard for each field goal attempt. And he managed to do it without sending Howard to the foul line too often.
And Pachuia may have swung the balance of the series more during an altercation with Richardson in the fourth period. Pachulia took an elbow from Howard--I couldn't tell if it was intentional or not, but it's worth noting Howard was not facing Pachulia when it happened--after fouling him hard under the basket. Pachulia shouted in frustration, Richardson apparently took exception to what was said, and the two shoved each other before their teammates stepped in. Richardson used his left hand to shove Pachulia in the face, which is sure to result in at least a one-game suspension. You may recall Quentin Richardson received a two-game suspension for a similar exchange with Charlotte Bobcats guard Gerald Henderson late in the regular season.
Jason Richardson and Pachulia are guaranteed to miss Game 4 on Sunday, though the league has yet to announce an official punishment. Howard's status is less clear. He earned a one-game suspension during the 2009 Playoffs for throwing an elbow at Samuel Dalembert, though in that instance he clearly intended to harm the Philadelphia 76ers center.
So the Magic pay the price for Richardson's outburst in the short term, but the long-term effects off this loss, and this series, are far more serious. It isn't hard to envision the team undergoing drastic change over the summer if it fails to advance past Atlanta.
Without homecourt advantage, can the Magic take three out of four games from this Hawks team which has proven it can defend them better than most teams? Can they at least tie the series without their starting shooting guard? What happens if they don't?
Nobody knows, but it's hard to feel completely optimistic about their chances.