‘Confident' Hawks move on after split in Orlando

The Hawks left Orlando with a spirited victory, a tough loss and home-court advantage for the final five games of the first-round Eastern Conference playoff series.

“That’s all you can ask for,” Hawks forward Josh Smith said after the Hawks’ 88-82 loss in Game 2 on Wednesday.

Teammate Joe Johnson, though, said he wanted more.

“I don’t think it was a ‘confidence loss’ or a ‘good loss,’” Johnson said after Hawks practice Wednesday. “To me it was a game that we pretty much gave away. It was right there for us to win.”

After controlling Game 1 from the second quarter, the Hawks engaged Orlando in a tough, physical contest in Game 2. The Hawks were up 10 points in the second quarter, down 12 late and then rallied to within 78-76 before faltering.

As the Hawks prepared for Game 3 on Friday at Philips Arena, they were both assured and disappointed by the fact they had a chance in Game 2 despite Orlando’s 20 offensive rebounds and 29-11 advantage on free throws.

“In most cases you lose by 20 in games like that,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said.

The loss showed how tough it will be for the Hawks to score when the Magic are sharp on defense.

The Hawks shot 51 percent in Game 1, but only 40 percent in Game 2. After Hawks guards hurt them in Game 1, the Magic changed the way they defended the perimeter, especially against Johnson, but mostly they simply picked up their energy.

“This one, to me, came down to one thing for us: We played extremely hard,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. “Especially from the time we were down 10 in the first half, I thought we just played with unbelievable intensity.”

Drew and Hawks players complained to officials throughout the game that they were getting short shrift on whistles.

“Some were fouls that wasn’t called,” Smith said. “It is what it is. I think we handled the physicality well. I think we cranked up our defense, as well. We have just got to make sure we box out next time because we played pretty good defense in the half court.”

The Hawks stayed with their plan to let their centers defend Howard without much help. In the two games Howard scored 79 points while making 25 of 35 shots and 29 of 41 free-throw attempts.

Jason Collins has played Howard well enough to make the plan work. Collins’ backup, Zaza Pachulia, also was relatively effective in harassing Howard in Game 2.

But when Collins and Pachulia have been in foul trouble, the three other Hawks big men who have tried to slow Howard have provided little resistance.

“They are battling him. There is a lot of banging going on,” Drew said. “We are getting what we want out of those guys in those cases. We have to buy [Collins] and Zaza time. I’m not discouraged by that, not one bit.”

The Hawks’ challenge defending Howard is magnified by his impressive stamina. Orlando’s offensive and defensive efficiency both plummet when Howard is on the bench, but so far he has hardly taken a breather.

After playing 46 minutes in Game 1, Howard was on the court for all 48 minutes of Game 2.

“I don’t know if he is able to keep his play up for the whole series the way he’s playing,” Johnson said. “He’s playing a lot of minutes and he’s putting them on his back every night, and I’m thinking that eventually we will wear him down.”

Even if Howard keeps it up, the Hawks have figured out a formula to win anyway, as they showed by winning Game 1 103-93 despite Howard’s 46 points. The Hawks also put to rest the ugly images of their 2010 playoffs loss to Orlando.

The Magic swept that semifinals series in four games by an NBA-record margin of 101 points. This year, the Hawks immediately sent notice that things would be different by winning Game 1 and didn’t fold when the Magic tried to run away with Game 2.

“I’ve been trying to tell [media] it is not the same team as you saw last year,” Hawks center Al Horford said. “We’re confident.”