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Hawks at Magic Game Preview

Atlanta knocked off the Magic in October, but winning will be a tougher task this time around.

When the Hawks first took on the Orlando in late October, they were a team with great promise and ambition – bright-eyed, with visions of crashing the Eastern Conference playoff race behind the efforts of a precocious young core. Orlando was a more established bunch seeking to defend a hard-earned playoff berth from the season prior. A 103-99 Hawks win suggested the potential to supplant a team like the Magic in the East hierarchy. But such conclusions are rarely accurate so early in the season, particularly for teams as young and erratic as Atlanta, and two months later it’s hard to even remember a time when the Hawks could inspire any sense of hope.

Atlanta has lost 27 of its 31 games since it defeated the Magic that Saturday night, and visits Orlando not in the midst of some breakout season, but on – or beyond – the brink of disaster. The Hawks have lost 10 games in a row, tying their season-high, and 21 of their last 23. To make matters more bleak, they’ll attempt to snap that skip without their best player as Trae Young misses his second consecutive game with a sprained right ankle. Atlanta’s first two outings without Young this season haven’t gone well; they lost in Miami on Halloween and were trounced by the Bulls in Chicago this Saturday.

Game Time: Monday, December 30, 2019, 7:00 p.m. ET

Location: Amway Center, Orlando, FL

TV: FOX Sports South, FOX Sports Florida

Streaming: NBA League Pass, FOX Sports Go

The latter game was among the Hawks’ worst showings of the season, even granted that they were down their best playmaker and on the second night of a back-to-back. Absent Young’s vision and passing wherewithal, Atlanta has no real avenue through which to run offense, which manifest in an 84.4 offensive rating and 44.2 effective field goal percentage. Scoring against the 14-18 Magic won’t be much easier than working against the energetic Bulls. Orlando ranks 11 in defensive rating and eighth in opponent turnover percentage and touts one of the longest and most active lineups in the NBA. All-Defensive candidate Jonathan Isaac will likely get the primary assignment on John Collins, who had 34 points on 26 shots against the Bulls. That’s an uncomfortable proposition for Atlanta given that Collins may be the only Hawks capable of reliably creating his own shot and Isaac can do things like this:

That will place more pressure on Kevin Huerter and De’Andre Hunter to create with the ball in their hands and, quite simply, make shots. The two shot a combined 4-of-21 on Saturday and are both mired in offensive slumps that have prevented the Hawks from finding a winning rhythm on offense. Aaron Gordon left Orlando’s game against the Bucks on Saturday early due to left Achilles soreness and it appears unlikely he’ll play until the tendon fully heals. That – and Al-Farouq Aminu’s absence – could leave Hunter with more room to attack.

The Magic are no offensive juggernaut, though most any team could look like one against Atlanta’s 29-ranked defense. Orlando ranks just 25 in points per possession, per Cleaning the Glass, and is tied for the second-worst effective field goal percentage in the league behind the bricklaying New York Knicks. They seldom turn the ball over, but like the Hawks, simply don’t have the dynamism or floor spacing to run an effective NBA offense. What little punch they do have comes from Nikola Vučević and Evan Fournier (although Vučević has dropped off after an All-Star season last year). Both are excellent passers and crafty scorers who overcome a lack of speed and explosiveness with quick decisions and smart, patient moves.

Terrence Ross provides some firepower off the bench, hitting more than two 3-pointers per game, but has come down from a career-high in efficiency last season. Markelle Fultz keeps defenses off-balance with clever passes and arrhythmic drives, but still has a ways to go before he’s ready to anchor an above-average offense.

This game figures to be a slow, arduous affair, which favors Orlando. The Magic will make the Hawks work for good shots, which Atlanta can hardly come by against opponents who don’t force the kind of pressure Orlando does. If there’s an avenue for the Hawks to win, it’s through turning the Magic over. Atlanta forces the fourth-most turnovers in the league while the Magic commit the fourth-fewest; if the visitors can swing that margin their way and one of Collins, Hunter, and Huerter has an explosive night, it might keep them in the game enough to avoid an 11 consecutive loss. On the other hand, the Hawks lead the NBA in turnover rate and the Magic excel at taking the ball from opponents. At this point, Atlanta’s outlook has gotten so bleak that a win against any team will take some sort of aberration.