After playing the Hawks even into the second quarter, the Magic shook off the rust of a week-long layoff to dismantle Atlanta 114-71 in Game 1 of the Eastern semifinals Tuesday in Orlando. Led by an unencumbered Dwight Howard, the Magic dominated at both ends in a game that was essentially over at halftime. The Hawks, coming off a seven-game struggle with Milwaukee to reach the second round, don't have much time to lick their wounds with Game 2 scheduled for Thursday.
Dwight's learning curve. It appears Howard went back to school in the week Orlando had between the first and second rounds. After averaging 5.5 fouls per game against Charlotte, Howard committed only three vs. the Hawks on Tuesday while dialing up his best performance of the playoffs: 21 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks. Part of that was made possible by the Hawks' relatively passive defense (more on that later) and part was the result of Howard's effort to move his feet more than swing his elbows. With Al Horford, Zaza Pachulia, Jason Collins and Joe Smith at his disposal, Hawks coach Mike Woodson has 24 fouls to use on Howard, whose only fault in Game 1 was in shooting 5-for-10 from the free throw line. Perhaps using more than the eight fouls Atlanta got from its big men would provide some sort of check, but after Tuesday it is doubtful.
No margin for error. As athletically talented as the Hawks are, they will have to be nearly perfect to win a game, let alone this series. Take the first quarter of Game 1, when Atlanta held the Magic to 40 percent shooting, Howard to a manageable five points and held its own on offense with 16 points in the paint. Yet Orlando held a two-point edge heading into the second period. Likely feeling the fatigue of a seven-game series concluded 48 hours earlier, the Hawks, tied at 27, faltered a bit in the second quarter, running a stretch of offense that saw possessions end in a block, a shot-clock violation, a turnover, a steal and a missed dunk. In that same 5:17, the Magic connected on dunks, layups, mid-range jumpers and a three to run off 17 consecutive points and all but break Atlanta's back.
Horford's dilemma. Charlotte was able to limit Howard to fewer than 10 points a game in Round 1 by throwing waves of big bodies at Howard to send him to the foul line or frustrate him into committing silly fouls. And that's all those big bodies were asked to do. Atlanta doesn't have that luxury. (Neither did Charlotte, but the Bobcats were so overmatched Larry Brown tried to find some small measure of victory, and guarding Howard was it.) Horford is a crucial piece of the Hawks' offense, which means he has to stay out of foul trouble, which means he can't guard Howard with the ferocity Howard demands. That gave Howard all the freedom he needed Tuesday to get in his first real rhythm of the playoffs. If the Hawks have any hope of upsetting that rhythm, they have to sacrifice Horford's production, but are they willing? Will they alter the lineup to add some more size and allow the smaller Horford room to operate away from Howard? Neither sounds like much of a solution.
Rare air. The Hawks drove to the hoop nine times in the first quarter and they came out of it down by two. They took three shots in the paint in the second and they walked into halftime down 20. Those sorts of things happen when three of your primary rotation players (Mike Bibby, Horford and Jamal Crawford) shoot a combined 3-for-23 or when you shoot 2-for-13 from the three-point line as a team. Clearly, with someone like Howard to overcome, the lane is not going to offer easy access to the hoop, but forcing Howard to defend and perhaps pickup a few fouls has to be a better option than hoisting up enough bricks to build a house.
Can the Hawks recover? Professional athletes have remarkably short memories when necessary, and after losing by 43 points, the Hawks need them. On the bright side, Orlando isn't likely to play as picture-perfect a game, nor are the Hawks likely to slug through as badly. Still, there are matchup issues that can't be overcome in the paint. And Joe Johnson already looks tired chasing multiple threats on the perimeter. That means a whole lot of Josh Smith and getting something out of Johnson's backcourt mates, Bibby and Crawford. But let's be honest -- Orlando is built to win a title and is playing like it. The Magic may be technically the No. 2 seed, but in watching them easily handle the first five games of these playoffs, the Eastern title goes through Orlando.