Orlando – The Hawks led the Magic by two points after 35 minutes and 59 seconds here Thursday night. They trailed by 19 points barely eight minutes later. The visitors had gotten almost everything they could have hoped from the first three quarters, and yet, once again, they weren’t close at the end.
There was about Game 2 a sensation of a best shot having been delivered and parried — a chilling thought. Asked if that was his impression, Josh Smith said: “There’s a better shot still to come. We have to play the full 48.”
Maybe those long-awaited 48 minutes will come at Philips Arena on Saturday. If not, that’s it for this season. The team that won 53 games is down to its last real chance. That said …
The Milwaukee Bucks were down to their last real chance not two weeks ago, and they won Games 3, 4 and 5 and had a chance to close out the Hawks at the Bradley Center. The old playoff axiom: A series doesn’t begin until the road team wins. The road team hasn’t yet won in this series.
As suggested last night, there’s every chance the Magic could be too stout for the Hawks. “They’re good,” Mike Woodson admitted in a candid moment, staring at the box score in the locker room. Also this, regarding his team: “They’re going to have to have a defensive mentality.”
The Hawks have played five road playoff games. In four of them the opponent has scored more than 100 points. The exception was Game 6 against Milwaukee, in which the Hawks limited the Bucks to 69 points. Woodson took great pride in his team’s defensive efforts — Milwaukee averaged 71.5 points over the final two games — to close out that series, but the Magic are a different kettle of fish. They scored 114 points in a laugher and 112, after a 28-point fourth quarter in which Dwight Howard made only one basket, in a tight game that became a laugher.
“We’re good enough to play with anybody,” said Al Horford, who had one of the finest games of a stellar career (24 points, 10 rebounds). “We’ve got to keep improving and building on what we did the first half. We’ve got to put in a full game.”
If you’re into trends, you’re slightly encouraged. The Hawks played one good quarter in Game 1; they played three in Game 2. They were where they needed to be the second time around, and then they started lofting jump shots and the game got away. The Magic went from one point ahead to 11 points up in three minutes and 10 seconds, which shows Orlando has a separation gear its opponent lacks. The trick is to keep that gear from being engaged.
And that won’t be easy, not even at Philips. The one time the Hawks beat the Magic this season, they led by 11 points late but needed Smith’s follow dunk at the horn to win. The Magic have so many options: Jameer Nelson had four points in the first half Thursday, 13 in the third quarter; Vince Carter had four points in the first half, 11 in the fourth quarter.
Came the final period, Mike Bibby was long gone. There’s nobody for him to guard in this series. (There aren’t many people for Bibby to guard in any series.) What people say about the playoffs is true: Matchups become paramount here, and the longer a series goes the harder it is for the Hawks to hide Bibby. Imagine trying to win in postseason with your starting point guard not playing a fourth-quarter minute.
“We have to put in a full game,” Horford said. “We tried to get a full game together and couldn’t do it.”
And now it’s down to one last stand. Game 3’s are often last stands for the team trailing 2-0, but that doesn’t mean Game 3 can’t have a transforming effect. The Hawks were just looking for respectability headed into Game 3 against the Celtics in 2008; they wound up taking Boston to a Game 7.
As ominous as it seems, this series isn’t over. The Hawks play better at home, and they’ll have to play better than ever if they plan to give Orlando a real run. “You’ve got to play the full 48 to beat these guys,” Smith said, and the Hawks managed three-quarters of that in Game 2. Either they go the distance in Game 3, or they prepare to go home for the summer.