ORLANDO – They won game one and threw a scare into Orlando in game two.
Forget the odds. Forget the mood swings of the regular season. Forget the part of you that says, “I don’t like this team. I don’t trust this team. They’re going nowhere.”
The Hawks didn’t guarantee themselves a playoff series upset with their performances in Orlando. But they certainly sent a message in game two that game one wasn’t a fluke. After winning the series opener Saturday, they led the heavily favored and desperate Magic by as much as 10 points in the second quarter, fizzled, fell behind by 14 in the fourth, looked dead and then showed the fight and resiliency that too often was missing this season to pull to within two at 78-76 with two minutes left.
In the end, they ran out of gasps and spasms, losing 88-82 Tuesday night. But Orlando walked off their home court with their hearts nearly jumping out of their chest — and this time Jameer Nelson didn’t make a stop to make a crack about catching Chicago in the second round.
“We believed before we came down here, and we still believe we can win this series,” Kirk Hinrich said.
The Magic were a little more physical and aggressive defensively. The Hawks didn’t shoot nearly as well (39.5 percent) as in the series opener. They also didn’t handle the ball as well. They also went to the free throw line only 17 times (making 11), compared to Orlando’s 36 (29 made).
That’s an 18-point difference. Welcome to the NBA’s well-chronicled swing officiating.
Coach Larry Drew wouldn’t comment on the discrepancy, saying only: “We lost a composure a little in the first half.”
The bigger issue was losing Al Horford. He drew two fouls in the first two minutes and Drew made the curious decision — as he has all season — to sit Horford out for the remainder of the half. When Horford got back into game in the second half, he looked out of rhythm and didn’t hit his first bucket until the fourth. The Hawks were outrebounded 52-39. Orlando had 20 offensive boards — most of those when Horford was on the bench.
“I got taken out of the game quick in the first half — I feel like that affected us,” Horford said. “They had 16 offensive rebounds in the first half. That’s something I have to be more conscious about. I was out of rhythm. It took me a while to get going. The team played well but we just missed some shots.”
The Magic led by as much as 14 early in the fourth quarter. The Hawks looked dead. Even when Dwight Howard (33 points) drew his fifth foul with 5:40 left, they trailed by 12 points, 78-66, and the offense was out of rhythm. The starting backcourt of Joe Johnson and Hinrich were a combined 7 for 23.
But they didn’t fold. Again.
They went on an 8-0 run, including two baskets by Johnson, to close Orlando’s lead to four points with 2:43 left. After an Orlando timeout, Horford stole a pass and then finished off a give-and-go with Josh Smith with a dunk to pull to 78-76. The Hawks bench erupted.
Could this happen again? No. This time the rally fell short. A three-pointer by Jason Richardson with 1:03 left pretty much buried them at 83-76.
The Hawks led by as much as 10 points in the first half, and for a while were playing possibly their best basketball of the season. They defended well, had few turnovers, drove to the basket and rarely took a bad shot. Howard had as many turnovers as points (four each) in the first quarter, and once again seemed bothered by the play of Jason Collins.
The market correction came later.
It was an interesting past two days. Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy scrambled to decipher out how they could lose a game when Dwight Howard scored 46 points. General manager Otis Smith openly criticized the game one performance of forward Hedo Turkoglu, possibly as an attempt to distract fans who’ve been busy throwing Smith under the bus since a seven-player December trade that brought Turkoglu and Richardson to town and sent Vince Carter, Marcin Gortat and Michael Pietrus away.
Then there were the Magic fans, who are worried enough about Howard opting out of his contract after next season, or possibly forcing a trade this summer, Carmelo-style, if their team gets bounced by the Hawks.
They’re a little calmer in Orlando now. But they know they’re in for a series.
By Jeff Schultz
Last few Hawks blogs