Despite Recent Success, Hawks Can’t Overcome Magic

The Atlanta Hawks have had one of the best records in basketball over the last few seasons.

After finally breaking through into the postseason in 2008, the Hawks pushed the Boston Celtics, who would eventually win the NBA championship, to seven games in their first round series. A year later, the Hawks took it one step further, improving their record by 10 games (37-45 to 47-35) and defeated Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat in seven games before being swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round. Last season the Hawks improved their record again, finishing 53-29, which was the third best record in the Eastern Conference and sixth best record in the entire league. They again advanced to the second after defeating the Milwaukee Bucks in seven games.

After winning a playoff series for the second straight year, the Hawks were swept by the Orlando Magic in one of the most lopsided postseason series in NBA history, losing the four games by a combined 101 points.

Suffering from devastating defeats at the hands of the Orlando Magic is nothing new for the Hawks. If you include the postseason, the Hawks are now 3-13 in their last 16 games against the Magic.

In fact, Atlanta’s lone win in eight games against the Magic last season came on a Josh Smith put-back dunk at the buzzer back on March 24th.

For the Hawks, it starts with their franchise player, Joe Johnson. Johnson has been one of the league’s elite scorers, but has been very ineffective against the Magic. Actually, the entire Hawks backcourt, including Johnson, Mike Bibby and Jamal Crawford has struggled against what is always a very stout Orlando defense. They appear to be afraid of challenging Dwight Howard in the lane and instead settle for inefficient jumpers. Often times, they waste a lot of time and take contested shots late in the shot block. Johnson even earned the nickname of “Iso Joe” because former head coach Mike Woodson’s only real offense seemed to be to Joe Johnson in an isolation situation.

Speaking of Howard, there is absolutely no one to match up with him on the defensive end. Al Horford is a very nice player but doesn’t have the size and strength to compete down low with Howard. The Hawks have Zaza Pachulia, Josh Powell and Jason Collins at center but none of them can present any real problems for Howard.

This seems very similar to another situation Magic fans should be familiar with.

“I would compare this to our situation against Detroit,” Marcin Gortat said. “My first three years in the league, we were struggling against Detroit every time.”

The Detroit Pistons absolutely owned the Magic for the better part of a decade.

From 2006-2009, including the postseason, the Magic went just 3-17 against the Pistons. The Magic were even swept in their 2008-09 regular season series against the Pistons (three games) and that’s the Magic team which went to the NBA Finals.

Gortat was referring to Orlando’s first round playoff loss in 2007 when they were swept by the Detroit Pistons and their second round exit in 2008 when the Pistons won the series four-games-to-one. The Magic were also eliminated by the Pistons four-games-to-three in 2003 after taking a commanding 3-1 series lead, but none of the current Magic players were on the roster at that time.

Can the Hawks things turn around?

It all depends.

The Magic have really turned things around on the Pistons and have now won five of their last six meetings with the Pistons, including two wins last week. On Friday night, the Magic defeated Detroit without Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson, J.J. Redick, Mickael Pietrus and Ryan Anderson, leaving only eight players dressed and ready to play.

Of course, that’s a different situation – this isn’t the same Pistons. Rasheed Wallace moved on to Boston and since retired. Noted Magic killer Chauncey Billups was sent to Denver for Allen Iverson, who is also long gone.

It might not be the same story for the Hawks.

Yes, Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis are aging and Carter is not expected to remain with the club next season, but Dwight Howard is turning just 25 on Wednesday and Jameer Nelson is 28. As long as Howard doesn’t bolt when he becomes a free agent, he’s going to arguably be the Hawks’ biggest problem for quite some time, meaning the Hawks will have to find a different way to beat the Magic.

After being embarrassed by the Magic in the playoffs last season, the Hawks fired Mike Woodson and brought in Larry Drew. In their first meeting with the Magic this season, they got off to a great start, getting off to a 21-8 lead but the Magic fought back and made plays down the stretch, earning a 93-89 victory.

Although they have dominated the Hawks, the Magic never underestimate them and can see the improvements they make when they go head-to-head.

“Those guys are tough,” explained Gortat. “With each game, they are learning how to play against us. We’ve got to keep playing better to beat Atlanta.”

The Magic believe it is important to keep playing their best ball against the Hawks because they know the Hawks would gain a lot of confidence if they finally break through.

“We don’t want to give them confidence,” Gortat said.

“Nothing’s changed,” Dwight Howard added.

The Hawks hope Howard is wrong.

News & Notes:

  • The Magic, playing with just eight players, defeated the Detroit Pistons 104-91 Friday but couldn’t do the same in Milwaukee, falling to the Bucks 96-85 Saturday night. Andrew Bogut had 31 points and 18 rebounds for the Bucks.
  • Orlando’s loss to the Bucks marked the end of their Midwest road trip. After coming home to host the Hawks Monday, the Magic will go on a four game west coast trip, starting in Portland Thursday. They’ll play the Jazz in Utah Friday, the Clippers and Los Angeles Sunday and the Nuggets in Denver Tuesday. They’ll then get some much needed rest before returning home to face the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday, December 18th.