The Hawks’ four-game homestand began rather sloppily with a loss to the Magic on Wednesday night. Atlanta used an explosive second quarter to hang around in the first half, but did not have the discipline to keep pace with Orlando in the second. Two weeks after hanging 135 points on the Hawks in Orlando, the Magic were just as explosive on Wednesday, scoring 1.26 points per possession in an offensively charged 130-120 contest.
Though the Hawks posted a 115.7 offensive rating of their own, it was their defense that let them down in the second half. As in their last win over the Hawks, the Magic relied on relentless pressure on the rim and aberrational 3-point shooting to power their offense past Atlanta’s. The Hawks received 37 points (including 20 in the second quarter) and 11 assists from Trae Young and an efficient 26 points from John Collins, but allowed the Magic to score at will from the most efficient areas of the floor. Orlando converted 68 percent of their shots at the rim while hitting nearly 47 percent from beyond the arc, and the former mark was largely a product of the latter.
Atlanta struggled to track the Magic as they drove and cut their way to 38 attempts within four feet of the basket, and Orlando outscored the Hawks 52-34 at the rim (not counting free throws). Constant pressure at the rim opened up wide-open 3-point attempts, which the Magic made with dazzling accuracy. That forced the Hawks to close out harder and created more chances at the rim, and the cycle repeated all night.
“It’s an inside-out game with these guys, and a lot of their damage is done in the paint,” Lloyd Pierce said. “The 3s are a [product] of what they do in the paint, and I thought the paint was really what hurt us tonight.”
Nikola Vučević and Aaron Gordon helped organize Orlando’s offense, facilitating adeptly through the high post and providing a much-needed scoring punch. Vučević (17 points, 12 rebounds, three assists) took advantage of Atlanta’s thin center rotation while Gordon (25 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, three blocks) played as beautiful an all-around game as any Hawk opponent has this month. Evan Fournier (28 points, five assists) took advantage of the seams they created. Markelle Fultz found enough room to deliver eight assists within the tight confines of the Magic offense while Mo Bamba registered 15 points, 10 boards, and four blocks in just 17 minutes of action off the bench.
The game turned early in the third quarter, in which the Magic created the bulk of their final margin of victory. The Hawks began the half with an 11-4 run before Orlando called timeout and made an 11-0 push, and Atlanta never led again. The Magic got to the basket with impunity, both in the halfcourt and in transition, and had put a damper on Atlanta’s offense and its spirit by the end of the period.
“I thought that third quarter was brutal after coming out of half and really getting off to a good start,” Pierce said. “It just kind of fell apart the rest of that third quarter. It’s really our defensive end. We couldn’t get stops, we didn’t have a stop mentality, we didn’t take away anything from them in that third quarter.”
Pierce tried both zone and man-to-man defense in attempt to slow the Magic, but they countered each approach with heady ball movement and purposeful dribble penetration. The Hawks had little or no help defense at the rim regardless of what defensive alignment they were in, and the absence of Dewayne Dedmon, who sat out with a sore right elbow, was evident on plays like this one:
“I feel like for us, we let our foot off the pedal a little bit,” Collins said. “We didn’t keep pressing them and keep playing with that intensity that we started out with. And when you’re trailing you can’t really take your foot off the pedal at all.”
The Hawks will have a chance to step their foot back on the gas on Friday night against the Nets, but they have much to clean up between now and then. Dedmon alone will not solve Wednesday’s defensive issues, and even if he plays Atlanta will need more punch from nearly everyone outside of Young and Collins. Pierce has been playing his starters heavy minutes lately and hinted at expanding the rotation after Wednesday’s loss. Even in their shorthanded and youthful state, the Hawks should be able to capitalize on explosive offensive games like this one. They’ll try on Friday not to let another opportunity slip away.