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Howard's dominance helps Magic nucleus live to see another day

ORLANDO -- The epitaphs were already half-written, minus a few minor details. As the Magic fell behind by six points at the end of the first quarter and 10 with nine minutes to go in the second, inching ever so slowly toward an 0-2 hole against the Hawks, the minds of columnists everywhere began to whirl with speculation on the team's future.

Stan Van Gundy? He was toast. Otis Smith? The only question was whether the maligned general manager could take Gilbert Arenas -- he of the $17.7 million salary and nine points in this series -- with him. Dwight Howard? It was just a matter of which team -- New York, New Jersey or the Lakers -- could put together the most attractive package in the offseason.

It was over. And then it wasn't. Van Gundy spent a timeout at that nine-minute mark reminding his players that Atlanta was struggling just as much as they were. The reason they were down, the coach hammered home, was because Joe Johnson had nailed "a couple of 40-footers" and the Hawks had benefitted from a few lucky bounces. Yes, they were playing poorly, Van Gundy told them. But Atlanta wasn't playing much better.

"I thought our energy was pretty good," Van Gundy said. "I thought for the most part, I liked our shots. I just kept saying you got to keep shooting the open shots and they will drop."

And they did. Sort of. The Magic rallied to outscore Atlanta 32-20 in the second quarter and were able to squeeze in a few timely jumpers in the fourth. But this one won't be re-run too many times on Sun Sports and won't be archived by coaches looking for tape to show children at clinics. Not when the winning team shoots 34.6 percent from the floor, 21.7 percent from the three-point line and commits nearly twice as many turnovers (16) as it dished out assists (nine). But for the future of the Magic franchise, Tuesday night's 88-82 win was a biggie. It evened the first round series at one game apiece and quelled debate about the direction of the organization for at least another couple of days.

Thank Howard for that. The Hawks continue to show no interest in double-teaming Orlando's All-NBA center, preferring to let the trio of Jason Collins, Zaza Pachulia and Al Horford mug him for four quarters and commit everyone else to keeping the Magic's perimeter players in check. It worked in Game 1, when Atlanta survived a 46-point, 19-rebound onslaught from Howard to steal home court advantage. On Tuesday, however, Howard simply would not be denied. He played all 48 minutes, setting a franchise playoff record for points in a quarter (20) in the second en route to a 33-point, 19-rebound night.

"He was phenomenal tonight," Van Gundy said. "I mean, he really was phenomenal. I'm not even talking about the numbers. What he put into the game for 48 minutes in a game of that intensity, that's incredible. I'm sure he's glad we have two days in between [games] right here."

Indeed, Orlando has some time to regroup before Friday night's Game 3 in Atlanta and a plethora of problems to fix. Van Gundy has no idea how to correct the Magic's shooting woes -- "maybe when I draw a diagram of the play I'll show the ball going in," he said -- but hopes a team that shot 46.1 percent in the regular season will right itself. He continues to get nothing from Arenas and hinted that with J.J. Redick ready to reclaim his role in the rotation we may be seeing less and less of him, too. He worries about Howard's turnovers (seven on Tuesday) and that even though they have battled their way back into this series, this Hawks team is still a matchup nightmare (Jamal Crawford and Joe Johnson, in particular) that plays with a swagger they didn't have a year ago.

"These two teams have history," said Quentin Richardson. "They're not backing down. We're definitely not backing down. At no point did we think it was going to be easy. We know it's going to be a fight."

Added Van Gundy, "I've got to think at some point we're going to knock down some shots and things are going to open up a little bit."

They had better. It may not be championship or bust this season in Orlando, but it's close. A team with an $89 million payroll wasn't built to be bounced out of the first round. Each loss is one more reason for Magic fans to fret over Howard's future and with a lockout threatening to wipe out part (if not all) of next season, this could be Orlando's last chance to make a strong impression. Make no mistake, big market teams like the Knicks, Nets and Lakers will be coming for Howard soon, offering up the chance to be the grand poobah on a bigger stage. The best way to fight back against those overtures is to win. Howard is doing his part. It's on his teammates now to step up.

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