Tonight’s game represents what some folks expected might happen in this series: the Magic tear the Hawks apart with Howard inside and the three-point shooters outside, while Atlanta clanks jumper after jumper. That summation is a bit reductive, I admit, but when one considers the Magic’s convincing sweep of the Hawks last season, as well as the Hawks’ six-game losing skid to end the regular season and their negative point differential, it’s not too terribly far off the mark.
At the start of the game, it looked as if the first quarter could produce another troublesome first quarter for the Magic. Orlando missed six of its first seven shots and 11 of 14 after the first seven minutes. And when Howard headed to the bench with his second foul, it looked as if the Magic could fall behind early again.
But Orlando closed the final 5:40 of the first period on a 16-5 run, remarkably, without Howard. Redick had a dazzling reverse layup under Joe Johnson, drilled two pull-up jumpers, hit another shot off a pick and finally burned the Hawks by sinking another shot as he was hit by Atlanta’s Kirk Hinrich. Redick made his first five shots.
For the first four games of this playoff series, the Orlando Magic could depend on only one player: Dwight Howard. No one else hit shots consistently. No one else defended game-in, game-out effectively. And no one else brought the necessary intensity at the beginning of games.
But with their team facing elimination Tuesday night, the rest of the Magic finally had Howard’s back.
On an evening Howard faced early foul trouble, his much-maligned supporting cast turned Game 5 — and perhaps the series itself — on its ear. J.J. Redick, Jason Richardson and the rest of the roster propelled the Magic to a 101-76 thrashing of the Atlanta Hawks at Amway Center.
He [Redick] finished making 6-of-8 shots for 14 points. He oddly found a way to beat the Hawks’ defense that hugged the 3-point line — J.J. didn’t take any. He relied more on pick-and-rolls and curl patterns to spring him free, shades of his Duke days.
The Magic led 15-9 at the time of Redick’s season-saving run. His 11 consecutive points on 5-of-5 shooting came when Dwight Howard was on the bench after picking up two quick fouls.
That rhythm had been missing the entire series and now Atlanta fans have to hope that this performance doesn’t jump start the long dormant Orlando offense. It is no secret that the Hawks defense wasn’t very good. They were a step slow in just about every area defensively, but lets give a little credit to Orlando and Stan Van Gundy. For really the first time in the series, the Magic played like their back was against the wall. When Howard picked up that second foul, it would have been really easy for Orlando to simply have folded. They instead took the fight back to the Hawks and like we have seen many times this season, Atlanta wasn’t interested in putting up much of a fight.
When the PNR defense broke down, as Josh noted, they had to leave their men to help, and those spot up shooters made the Hawks pay like they hadn’t made them pay since last season.
Horford also noted that they used different ball-handlers coming off that play as well, and Smith shared that the defensive gameplan was not to use a hard show from the bigs, which certainly exasperated attempts by the guards to prevent initial penetration.
By running their 1/5 pick-and-roll to the middle of the floor when Collins was in the game, Orlando largely negated Atlanta’s heretofore effective pick-and-roll defensive strategy. By attacking the lane, Orlando forced help to come a long way from the corner which both exacerbated Collins’ limited mobility and forced the Hawks to rotate to, rather than sit on, shooters on the three-point line.
The Orlando Magic made it clear that this series isn’t over. When they are hitting their jumpshots, they’re a real dangerous team. So dangerous that having Dwight Howard score only 8 points and grab 8 rebounds the entire game is okay because it still leads to a 25 point blowout. But it wasn’t the Magic’s perimeter success that contributed to a win. The defense was good too which made the Hawks struggle to get it going. If one of the two (perimeter shots or defense) is successful for the Magic, the Magic will have a chance to win any game. The Magic are only two games away from winning this series and that’s doable. If they somehow carry over the momentum they got from Game 5 to Game Six and win the game, they’ll steal back homecourt advantage again and they will host a Game 7. And as we all know, the home team in Game 7 is usually the team that wins. This series isn’t over yet. I hope the Hawks know that.
But Tuesday the Hawks looked nothing like the focused, poised group that had won six of eight games against the Magic this season. The Hawks instead resembled the group that Orlando swept by an NBA-record margin of 101 points in the second round of the 2010 playoffs.
The Hawks now must recover from their first lopsided loss to the Magic since last spring. The Magic took control with a torrid burst of points in the first half, and the Hawks never recovered.
The Hawks said all the right things before the game. They wanted to close out the series here. They wanted to play like the desperate team. They wanted to take the Orlando crowd out of it early. Then the game started, and they wound up eating those words.
Magic forward Quentin Richardson said Howard’s persistent trust and encouragement in his teammates when they were at their lowest point — figuratively and literally, after setting an NBA record for futility with that 2-of-23 shooting performance from 3-point range in Game 4 — sparked a rally even before anyone touched the court Tuesday night.
The Magic were armed with three things entering Game 5.
They knew only eight teams in NBA history had come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a best-of-seven series. They also knew that they could immediately be headed into an offseason of major changes with the roster, coaching staff and front office had the season ended Tuesday night. And they also had Howard’s confidence in them.
It was a reminder that the Magic are still the Magic and the Hawks are still the Birdbrains.
“We lost our composure,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said after the loss.
The thing is, the Hawks tried to lose their composure during wins earlier in this series; it’s just that the Magic were shooting so badly they couldn’t take advantage. Atlanta tried its best to give away Games 3 and 4, but the ice-cold Magic refused to accept the offerings.
The pressure’s still on the Magic, because they’re the higher seed, and they gave away home court in Game 1 and they have Howard. If the Hawks have proven to be nothing else over these past several seasons, it’s this: They’re terrific frontrunners. The best chance for them to steal this series comes on Thursday night in Game 6.
Still, the Magic reclaimed themselves on Tuesday night, restated their intentions in this series. They needed to win the game, but they needed to find themselves again. When it was over, coach Stan Van Gundy shrugged. “We’re behind and what we did was cut the lead basically, like from 20 to 12. It’s like we’re in a game, and we’re behind … ”
(Andrew Melnick is Howard the Dunk’s lead blogger and ESPN 1080′s Magic Insider (http://espn1080.com). Subscribe to his RSS feed, add him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter to follow him daily. You can download the HTD app here).