The Atlanta Hawks exorcised their playoff demons with an 84-81 victory in Game 6 in front of a capacity crowd at Philips Arena, sending them into the second round and the Magic into a murky future.
"It's very exciting," Al Horford. And not entirely surprising, either. The Hawks privately seethed at the lack of respect they were shown before the series, as if dropping the Magic in three of the four regular-season meetings didn't seem to matter. That anger bubbled when Orlando point guard Jameer Nelson whispered "see you in the second round" to Chicago's Derrick Rose on national television -- Horford described it as a "slap in the face" -- and was unleashed in what Stan Van Gundy described as a perfectly executed defensive game plan that befuddled the Magic offense all series.
"A lot of people thought what we accomplished against this team in the regular season was a fluke," Hawks coach Larry Drew said. "Our guys came in believing we could win this series."
This series was a showcase of Atlanta's strengths. No, the Hawks are not good at playing from behind. So they didn't, trailing by a total of 1:20 in three games at home and building double-digit leads in the first half of five of six games. Orlando's three-point shooters killed the Hawks in last season's humiliating second-round sweep. This time they sent Horford, Jason Collins and Zaza Pachulia out with marching orders to bump and bruise Dwight Howard as much as possible while everyone else swarmed the perimeter. The result was nearly flawless: Howard got his (27 points per game), but the Magic's vaunted long-range game (26.2 percent for the series) never got on track.
"Our game plan going into this series was to make it as tough as we could for Dwight," Drew said. "We knew it would be a tough job for anybody to defend him. Our big guys had some tough assignments. We wanted to defend the three-point line. As good as Dwight is, that three-point line at times [for Orlando] could be even better. We didn't want to give those guys any good looks. Knowing that they really rely on the three-point ball, we wanted to contest all shots from the three."
Said Van Gundy: "Larry did a hell of a job. We didn't find enough ways to get enough shots."
Atlanta did. Van Gundy feared the matchup problems caused by Joe Johnson and Crawford coming into this series and his fears proved warranted. Johnson's size and strength frequently took the Magic out of its game plan while the wiry Crawford torched them from the outside, becoming just the third player in playoff history to record four straight 20-plus-point games off the bench. He connected on just three of his 10 three-point attempts in Game 6, but two of them came in the fourth quarter. His last two points were a pair of free throws with 8.2 seconds left that gave Atlanta a three-point lead. That advantage held up when J.J. Redick missed an open three-pointer with 3.9 seconds remaining and Jason Richardson had his desperation three at the buzzer blocked by Josh Smith. Orlando finished 5-of-19 from long range, the same 26 percent accuracy as its series average.
On Friday, Drew and his staff will begin scheming ways to defend Rose, a prospect that becomes much more difficult if Kirk Hinrich -- who had to be helped to the locker room after straining his hamstring in the fourth quarter -- is unavailable. The Magic? They don't know what comes next. Speculation about Howard's future will flood the Internet in the coming days and weeks, speculation that is probably justified. Howard wouldn't address it in the postgame news conference, saying "there was no need to comment on my future," but that won't stop the questions from being asked.
Howard has repeatedly said he wants to play for championships. The Magic are nowhere near that level. The team has regressed since making it to the NBA Finals in 2009, and the midseason acquisitions of Gilbert Arenas and Richardson did not, to put it mildly, have the desired effect. Howard took a subtle shot at his teammates when he said after the game that the Hawks "outworked us," and it's unlikely many of the faces in his locker room are going to change. The Magic need a big body to play next to Howard and an even bigger body to play behind him but, they already have $74 million in salaries on the books for next season and the cap-killing contracts of Arenas, Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu make any significant moves difficult.
So what changes can happen? Owner Rich DeVos said this week that Van Gundy and GM Otis Smith are safe. That only leaves Howard, who can exercise an opt-out clause in his contract after next season. Howard says he loves Orlando but there are whispers that he has his eyes on big markets like Los Angeles and New York. That leaves the Magic with a choice: Do they roll the dice and risk the fate of Cleveland and Toronto, superstar-forsaken cities with little hope for the future? Or do they put Howard on the market and hope a Carmelo Anthony-type package of players becomes available that can at least give them a chance to rebuild on the fly?
The end was ugly for the Magic and it could get uglier. Howard asked his city to keep fighting, declaring that things will get better. But for Orlando, things could get measurably worse.