- Michael Wallace, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATLANTA -- Indeed, these are sensitive times for the Orlando Magic.
That much was obvious prior to Friday night's game, when Dwight Howard took on a handful of reporter hacks about an hour before he matched up with the Atlanta Hawks for Game 3 of this best-of-seven, first-round playoff series.
Howard was refreshingly candid when questioned by a few reporters about matters ranging from their opinions of his place in the league's MVP race to trade speculation in some circles that he could be headed out of Orlando as soon as this summer should the Magic's playoff run suddenly turn tragic.
The tension and uneasiness around this team was even more evident after Atlanta's 88-84 victory dumped Orlando into a 2-1 series hole, when Magic coach Stan Van Gundy was visibly frustrated as he questioned his team's energy level, confidence and ability to consistently execute.
The Magic's loss Friday night was bad enough to a Hawks team that has built a double-digit lead in each game of the series. But even worse, it's becoming obvious that Orlando is also simply at a loss.
Howard can say all the right things publicly at this point about wanting to stay in Orlando for the long term and having no desire to leave when he becomes a free agent after next season. But beyond point guard Jameer Nelson, I'm not sure he completely believes in the supporting cast around him.
There's legitimate reason for Howard to scoff at any notion that Derrick Rose has carried a heavier burden in Chicago than he has in Orlando and is more deserving of an MVP award. And Van Gundy can be only so politically correct in this spot, when he knows the players he was handed in those December trades are about as reliable and consistent these days as gas prices.
Despite yet another close outcome in what has become a brutally physical series, there seems to be a seismic shift between these teams.
The Hawks are the team playing with the competence, confidence and chemistry that comes with knowing you're the better team and that it's only a matter of time before you get the four victories it takes to move on to the next round of the playoffs.
The Magic are the team searching, hoping, wishing and praying that things eventually come together in enough time to avert the disastrous outcome of a first- or second-round playoff exit.
"We know who our players are and their roles," Van Gundy said in trying to rationalize another brutal shooting performance from players who have failed the team throughout this series. "We're just not having a lot of success right now. The only thing I need to do, and it's probably the thing I should have done in the first place, is look at ways to get our guys in better position to get better looks."
How much better can looks get than wide open on the perimeter or point blank at the rim?
Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu can't seem to hit a shot in either spot. In fact, Richardson's most meaningful connection of the game came on the blow he landed on Zaza Pachulia's face during an altercation that got both ejected in the fourth quarter and possibly suspended for Game 4 on Sunday.
And at one point during the decisive fourth quarter, Turkoglu twice drove through the lane, never bothered to look at the basket -- or in Howard's direction -- only to retreat to the perimeter with just enough time on the shot clock to miss a contested jumper.
The Magic couldn't make wide-open shots. And the Hawks couldn't miss them, despite defenders being draped all over them from 30 feet out and the shot clock winding down.
Need a microcosm of this game, of this series, really? Look no further than the dagger that Jamal Crawford delivered for what proved to be the game-clinching shot in the final seconds Friday.
Crawford, who converted a four-point play earlier in the fourth quarter, put the game away with five seconds left when he pulled up and banked in a 3-pointer from the top of the key over Nelson. It was yet another example in this series that Atlanta proved to be too long, too lucky, too lethal for Orlando.
"Now, the pressure is on them," said Crawford, who yet again served notice that these Hawks aren't the same team Orlando swept last season in the most lopsided playoff series in NBA history. "There's no better chance at redemption than to beat the team that ran us off the court last year. We have a 2-1 lead. Now, they're chasing us. And it's the first one to four [wins]."
Even before Game 3, Crawford talked about how much he liked the spot the Hawks are in -- knowing that they've taken Howard's best punch and that only a poor two-minute stretch in Game 2 prevented them from sweeping the first two games in Orlando.
Now, the Hawks can feel even more comfortable about having history on their side. Teams that take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven format have a 70 percent success rate of winning the series. That means the Magic, a team with the second highest payroll in the league, are on the other side of those numbers.
But it's not like Howard hasn't been dealing with a 30 percent figure all series. That's right around the field goal shooting percentages of everyone on the Magic's roster who doesn't wear No. 12.
Howard produced another strong game Friday, with 21 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks in 45 minutes. But on a night when his production was slightly off the historic numbers he provided in averaging 39.5 points and 19 rebounds through the first two games, he could have used some support.
It never arrived. And for the first time in the series, Howard acknowledged what everyone watching already knew -- that the reinforcements that arrived in those big trades are shrinking in the moment. Turkoglu and Richardson entered Friday's game with the two worst shooting percentages of all players in these playoffs who have attempted at least 20 shots.
And the artist formerly known as Gilbert Arenas has evaporated from Van Gundy's rotation and is now only a figment of GM Otis Smith's imagination. Howard was asked what his message to Turkoglu and Richardson is in times like this.
"Just relax," Howard said. "Because of the playoffs and because of who we're playing, they want to win as bad as possible and do whatever they can. They feel like there's a lot of pressure on them because we did get them in the trade to come in and be productive. But I just want those guys to relax. We have to do this as a team."
Howard has led the Magic back from series deficits before. He knows that as bad as things felt after Friday's loss, this series can turn right back around with a victory in Game 4.
"Everybody's trying to gain that edge," Hawks coach Larry Drew said of the physical play and altercations in the series. "One thing we don't want to do in that situation is take a step back. I'm sure they feel the same way."
Yes, the Magic left Philips Arena on Friday night only 48 hours from an opportunity to even this series.
But there's just an odd feeling about this one.
Something that suggests the Hawks won't let up.
They, too, sense how fragile these times are for the Magic.
17hMichael C. Wright
6hMatt Walks, ESPN.com
6hMatt Walks, ESPN.com