Magic 112, Hawks 98
Maybe all the Orlando Magic needed after a slow start was a slap in the face.
Dwight Howard came back from a bloody nose to finish with 29 points and 17 rebounds, and the Magic beat the Atlanta Hawks 112-98 on Thursday night to take a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Not even a hard hit could slow the Magic's Superman.
``I'm human. It's not like I'm built of metal,'' Howard said. ``They did to me like they did the Wolverine. I bleed. I break bones.''
Not this time.
Vince Carter had 24 points with some big shots late and Rashard Lewis finished with 20 points, leading Orlando's 19-2 run in the fourth quarter. The perennially poor free-throw shooting Howard also was 13 for 18 from the line.
``Every time I step up there,'' Howard said, ``just believing it was going in.''
The Hawks avoided embarrassment but not another road playoff loss.
After a 43-point defeat in the opener, the Hawks led early but head home still searching for a way to stop the Magic's 12-game winning streak. Al Horford led Atlanta with 24 points, and Joe Johnson had 19 points.
Game 3 is Saturday in Atlanta.
``Go home and win. We've been pretty good on our floor,'' Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. ``They took care of their business on their home floor. We're going to see what we're made of.''
The Hawks finally drew first blood, it just wasn't a hard enough hit.
Howard made a layup as he was slapped in the face inadvertently by Horford to start the third quarter, the blood pouring from the Magic center's nose. Howard shot the free throw - and missed - with plugs in his nostrils, holding back laughter, and then left for about 2 minutes so trainers could stop the bleeding.
``I think he held his composure well,'' Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. ``He took some hard hits on the offensive end of the floor, that's led to some frustration and at times retaliation on his part. He got hit damn hard tonight, blows that would have dropped a lot of people, certainly me.''
The Hawks could only stop things temporarily.
The play started an 11-2 run that erased Atlanta's early nine-point lead and put the Magic ahead 62-59. The topsy-turvy starts by the two centers - Howard had 18 points in the first, and Horford scored 14 points in the second - were merely offsetting.
``He was shooting over our defense and making shots,'' Horford said. ``I can live with that. He had to earn everything he got.''
Jameer Nelson finished with 20 points and also made a 3-pointer as time expired in the third quarter, a demoralizing blow after Jamal Crawford's 3-pointer on the other end. It put the Magic ahead by one.
``That was a huge momentum boost for us,'' Van Gundy said.
Then they took off.
A flurry of Magic 3-pointers sent the Hawks packing with another loss to their Southeast Division rival, which has won eight of the last nine games in the series, including the playoffs. Carter, Lewis, Nelson and Mickael Pietrus all made one from beyond the arc during the big fourth-quarter spurt that put Orlando ahead by 19.
``We didn't play our best basketball in the first half but we were still within arm's reach,'' Carter said. ``In the second half, we played like the Orlando Magic.''
They had fun with it, too.
Magic players kept their arms in the air with every swish, teasing and pleasing the crowd in celebration. The run gave way to that all-too-familiar look on Atlanta's bench, with many players draping towels over their heads in shame.
Not even a near-perfect night on free throws for the Hawks (30 for 31) could prevent another loss in Orlando, which moved just two games away in the best-of-seven series from returning to the conference finals.
``I live for it,'' Carter said. ``Having the opportunity to play for so much, I welcome it.''
NOTES: It was the first time the Magic ever had four players score at least 20 points in a playoff game. ... Howard and Cleveland's LeBron James were the only unanimous choices the All-NBA Team announced Thursday. ... Howard also led the NBA first-team defense in voting.