- Michael Wallace, ESPN Staff Writer
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- First, a disclaimer: This, by no means, is meant to shortchange or disrespect the Atlanta Hawks.
Credit them for taking the best punch Dwight Howard has ever delivered in the playoffs and still having enough to deck the Orlando Magic 103-93 on Saturday in Game 1 of their best-of-seven playoff series to steal home-court advantage.
Let me repeat: Good for the Hawks.
So when this first-round series shifts to Atlanta in a few days, I don't want any of the thousands of fans disguised as empty seats at Philips Arena to be offended or upset with what I'm about to convey.
But if you're the Magic, a team with a bona fide MVP candidate and ambitions to shake up the Eastern Conference playoff picture, you have to be asking yourself one question after Saturday's painful and pitiful loss: How could this happen?
How could you get a postseason career-high 46 points and 19 rebounds from Howard, yet never really pose a real threat to the Hawks for the better part of three quarters?
How does your other catalyst, point guard Jameer Nelson, set a franchise record with a 20-point third quarter to spark a rally, yet find it's still impossible to chip away at Atlanta's comfortable lead?
And how do you claim to be playoff ready, puffed up with pride and quietly offended by the fact that Chicago, Boston and Miami are receiving all the national hype in your bracket, yet refuse to get defensive enough to stop the recently slumping Hawks from shooting a combined 72.3 percent in the decisive second and third quarters?
Yes, the Magic emerged from Saturday's loss with all of the requisite anguish. Just not many answers. So one game into their playoff run, Orlando is already in reset mode.
"We have to go back and look at some things, re-evaluate some things," said Nelson, whose team will have nearly 72 hours to figure something out before Game 2 on Tuesday. "I don't know. I can't put a finger on it right now."
Howard did his best Chamberlain impersonation. The rest of his teammates, aside from Nelson, did their best wilt job -- as in wilting away on both ends of the court. With a combined 79 points from Joe Johnson, Al Horford, Josh Smith and Jamal Crawford, the Hawks were the picture of balance.
Meanwhile, with everyone on the roster not named Dwight or Jameer combining to shoot 8-of-34 (23.5 percent), the Magic were the snapshot of bewilderment.
But as much as Orlando's offensive ineptness around Howard jumped off the stat sheet, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy chose to focus on his team's lack of resistance on defense as the biggest problem.
Not having enough players step up to help Howard shoulder the load on offense is one thing. Not being able to find anyone to slow down Johnson, keep up with Crawford or hang with Horford was a much larger indictment of the Magic.
When was the last time you saw the Hawks play and can't remember Smith taking one bad shot? That's the kind of night it was for Atlanta, which limped into the regular season having lost six straight games but had no problem finding its footing Saturday.
And that's the kind of nightmare it was for the Magic, who executed the most lopsided playoff sweep in NBA history of these very same Hawks in the conference semifinals last season but are already against the ropes this time around.
"I'm not coming in here angry at players who had bad games," Van Gundy said. "My focus right now is on me and my game plan. I've got to do a better job. I've got to find a way that we can guard them more effectively, and we've got to find some answers on the offensive end of the floor to get some of these other guys going, too. I want to get to the film as soon as I can and get back to work."
Van Gundy tried to do the noble thing and place most of the blame on himself amid his search for answers. On the other hand, Hawks coach Larry Drew deflected most of the credit for his team's transition from down-and-out at the end of the regular season to dominant in their playoff debut.
Drew was certain that he wasn't going to double-team Howard and allow other Magic players to feast on open perimeter looks. But he wasn't quite so sure of which version of his Hawks would execute the game plan. He could have gotten the Hawks who remembered being blown out by the Magic by an average of 25 points in the four playoff losses last season. Instead, he got the Hawks who were still gliding high from winning three of the four regular-season matchups with Orlando this season.
"I realized it this morning in shootaround," Drew said. "My bunch is a different bunch. With some teams, you know they're ready and focused when they're a little quiet. When we're ready, we're a little rowdy. They go through stretches when they don't play well, stretches when they seem disinterested. All I wanted us to do was come in here, play hard, maintain our composure and play the type of basketball I know we are capable of playing."
Most coaches cringe when there's talk about flipping the proverbial switch in the playoffs. Drew has come to embrace it. He knows what he has in his group. He also knows their limitations.
"We just had to be excited about where we were," Crawford said of the festive and feisty mood at Saturday morning's shootaround. "We understood that we've played this team four times and we've won three of them. So we're a confident group. The last six games of the season, I think people got a little down on us because we lost the last six. But we had a plan, and now it's coming into fruition."
This very same playoff matchup cost a coach his job last season, when Mike Woodson was jettisoned by the Hawks after Orlando swept Atlanta. Justified or not, there's certain to be questions about job security after this series again if the Magic aren't able to rally and advance.
There's already fuel for fodder among those critical of the major trades Orlando made midway through the season. Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter certainly gave the Magic more against these Hawks in last season's series than Jason Richardson and Gilbert Arenas offered Saturday.
Hedo Turkoglu and Brandon Bass are just bad matchups against Horford and Smith. And that doesn't even take into account the size advantage the Hawks have on the perimeter with Johnson and Crawford towering over any tandem of Magic guards.
Saturday might not have been a fluke for the Hawks.
It very well may have been the unveiling of a successful formula.
It certainly was a strong enough potion to leave Howard dejected after the most productive playoff game of his career resulted in a double-figure loss.
Howard was unstoppable on the court, yet nearly inaudible afterward.
"It's frustrating that we lost, but it's the first game," Howard said, searching for a bright spot. "We'll come back in the second game with a better effort."
Truth is, the Hawks can essentially forfeit Tuesday's game and fly back to Atlanta knowing they've already accomplished what they set out to do. They're guaranteed of a split in the first two games.
The irony is that Van Gundy joked about how much peace and quiet he enjoyed while preparing for the playoff opener. On Friday night, Van Gundy had the house to himself -- aside from his two dogs and four cats -- while his wife and children attended a concert at Amway Center.
"It was as quiet as it's ever been," he said. "I got a great night's sleep."
Van Gundy had no interest in seeing the Lady Gaga concert Friday.
But Saturday, he had to sit through his team's Game 1 no-show on the same arena floor.
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