Even on a tough night, the Atlanta Hawks had no doubts about putting the ball in Joe Johnson’s hands with the game on the line.
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Johnson hit four big free throws in the final 20 seconds and the Hawks finally put away the Orlando Magic, holding on for an 88-85 victory Sunday night and a commanding 3-1 lead in the Eastern Conference series.
Jamal Crawford had another big game off the Atlanta bench, scoring 25. He had a shot at a clinching 3-pointer for the second straight game, but threw up an airball with 32 seconds remaining.
It didn’t matter.
Johnson calmly stepped to the line and made two free throws with 20.2 seconds remaining, extending a one-point lead. He did it again under the same circumstances with 10.5 seconds left, making everyone forget Atlanta’s dismal performance at the line to that point. They finished 12 of 20.
”That’s what they get paid for. We rely on Joe and Jamal to get it done in tough situations,” Hawks forward Josh Smith said. ”They answered the bell again.”
Atlanta can wrap up the series in Orlando on Tuesday night. Magic coach Stan Van Gundy doesn’t have to look hard to find the reason his team is on the verge of elimination against a team it routed in the playoffs a year ago, wiping out the Hawks with the most lopsided four-game sweep in NBA history.
Orlando is shooting just 40 percent from the field in this series.
”Jamal is playing with unbelievable confidence. Everything he throws up, he knows it’s going in,” Van Gundy said. ”We’re at the opposite end of the spectrum. We have a lot of guys throwing it up, and they have no idea if it’s going in.”
The Magic shot only 39 percent (31 of 79) in this one, and actually rallied in the second half to reach that number.
Still, they had a chance at the end for a tying 3-pointer. Van Gundy set up a play for Hedo Turkoglu, but Al Horford foiled that by knocking the ball away from the Orlando player.
Turkoglu retrieved it near half-court, leaving him with only enough time to heave one up. It missed badly, and the Hawks celebrated a commanding lead in the series as streamers fell from the ceiling of Philips Arena.
”We got Game 1 in Orlando, so our confidence is through the roof,” Johnson said. ”We’re just trying to ride this wave right now.”
Dwight Howard led the Magic with 29 points and 17 rebounds. His night was marred by eight turnovers, however, including a couple of walking calls when he tried to back in on the collapsing Atlanta defense.
Gilbert Arenas, who didn’t even play in Game 3, picked up some of the scoring slack with Jason Richardson serving a one-game suspension for an altercation with Zaza Pachulia.
Arenas scored 20 points, but no other Orlando player had more than 11. The Magic continue to struggle with their jump shooting, unable to solve an Atlanta defense that is not consumed by Howard’s numbers, allowing it to play the outside guys straight up.
Turkoglu was 2 of 12. Jameer Nelson struggled through a 3-of-12 performance. Ryan Anderson made just 1 of 6. J.J. Redick missed all six of his shots.
”They’re playing good defense. I’m not taking anything away from them. But we’re getting good enough looks,” Van Gundy said. ”I don’t know what to tell you about the shooting. I really don’t.”
Crawford, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year in 2010, carried the offense for Atlanta most of the game. He hit 10 of 18, three of them from outside the arc.
Johnson made only 6 of 15 and finished with 20 points. Horford and Kirk Hinrich both had 14 for the more balanced Hawks, with Horford also contributing 12 rebounds. Smith had a tough night shooting but still chipped in with 10 rebounds and two blocks, one a soaring swat of a shot by Howard.
Now, Atlanta is one win away from advancing to the second round for the third year in a row.
”We’re a pretty good team with a chance to do some special things in the playoffs,” Smith said.
The Hawks led by as many as 16 in the first half, threatening to pull away from an Orlando team that kept throwing up one clunker after another. The Magic shot only 28 percent (12 of 43) before halftime, but Atlanta didn’t really take advantage of it. Orlando got it down to 46-37 going to the locker room, fully aware that it could’ve been much worse.
There were no altercations after things turned ugly late in Game 3.
Howard and Pachulia exchanged elbows, leading to a confrontation between Pachulia and Richardson that resulted in both being suspended for Game 4. Pachulia head-butted Richardson, who responded with a shove to the Atlanta center’s face.
With Pachulia barred from the arena, the Hawks were missing one of their primary defenders against Howard. They countered with the trio of Jason Collins, Josh Powell and Hilton Armstrong, the latter playing for only the second time in the series. Horford and Smith also got time guarding Howard, the Hawks’ throwing wave after wave at Orlando’s big man in hopes of keeping anyone from fouling out.
Howard, an Atlanta native, bantered with the crowd in his hometown, even coming over to the press table to exchange barbs with a couple of trash-talking fans in the third quarter.
”You’re the biggest whiner in the league,” one of them said.
”You wanna come our here and play me?” Howard responded. ”I’m averaging 33 points a game. Just keep drinking your beer.”
But the home fans had the last laugh.
Notes: Armstrong had one shining moment, setting a huge pick that sent Quentin Richardson sprawling and freed up Crawford for a 3-pointer. … Orlando exchanged one Richardson for another in the starting lineup, starting Quentin in Jason’s place. … With both teams forced to go with only 11 active players because of the suspensions, the Hawks deactivated Damien Wilkins. … Former Hawks owner Ted Turner made a rare appearance, watching from a courtside seat and even waving a white towel that was given out to all fans.