Intense pressure follows Magic to Atlanta
ORLANDO – The pressure has been palpable on everyone: from the GM and coach, to the superstar and supporting cast. For every misstep of the Orlando Magic there comes calling a cataclysmic list of consequences. Everyone understands the unspoken burden: sidestep an opening-round playoff debacle, or further validate Dwight Howard’s(notes) inclination to leave town.
Night after night in this series, it felt like the Magic’s identity had been stripped away. All those 3-pointers clanked off rims, and all those passes and dribbles morphed into turnovers. The Magic had stumbled to elimination’s brink, down 3-1 to the Atlanta Hawks and unraveling with every trip down the floor. Somehow, a championship contender had become a halfway house for bad contracts, broken down ex-stars and mixed-matched parts. Somehow, GM Otis Smith made it easier for Howard to leave as a free agent in 2012.
Gilbert Arenas(notes) privately grumbled over the coach’s absence of faith in him. J.J. Redick(notes) had missed five weeks and struggled to make a shot. Hedo Turkoglu(notes) had never looked older or less capable. The Magic were fading fast, desperately trying to hold onto an article of faith, desperately trying to hold on.
Hours before a 101-76 victory in Game 5, Howard delivered something of an impromptu, back-door guarantee: “If we get one win, we’re gonna win the whole thing.” His teammates needed to hear the confidence, needed to know that Howard still believed in them.
“For some reason, since I’ve been here, we’ve always put ourselves in situations like this,” Howard said. “We’ve been down by a lot and have to fight our way back.”
Yes, the shots started to fall again, and the Atlanta Hawks became the Hawks, unwilling to exert that staying power it takes to compete in – never mind close out – an elimination game on the road. The Magic destroyed the Hawks and as resistance-free, no-shows go, this was one of the greats for Atlanta.
The pressure’s still on the Magic, because they’re the higher seed, and they gave away home court in Game 1 and they have Howard. If the Hawks have proven to be nothing else over these past several seasons, it’s this: They’re terrific frontrunners. The best chance for them to steal this series comes on Thursday night in Game 6.
Still, the Magic reclaimed themselves on Tuesday night, restated their intentions in this series. They needed to win the game, but they needed to find themselves again. When it was over, coach Stan Van Gundy shrugged. “We’re behind and what we did was cut the lead basically, like from 20 to 12. It’s like we’re in a game, and we’re behind … ”
They won with Howard on the bench with foul trouble, and won with Redick and Anderson and Jason Richardson(notes). Redick had missed the final 17 games of the regular season with an injury, and practiced one time prior to the playoffs. Finally, he started popping shots again. He hit five without a miss in the first quarter, and the Magic were never challenged. With so little trust in Arenas, who can barely get up and down the floor, and Turkoglu, Redick is one of the teammates that Howard can count upon to overtake the Hawks with him.
He’s grown into a fine, trustworthy all-around guard. No more is Redick simply a specialist. Here’s something that you seldom see with Redick: He made six of his eight shots for 14 points, and never tried a 3-pointer.
And later, he had to laugh. In his five years in Orlando, they had never invited him to the interview room and he kind of liked it. He wouldn’t dare suggest that this blowout had delivered the Magic momentum for a Game 6, because that seldom ever transfers to the road.
“This series changed in Game 1,” Redick said. “They took home court from us. We’re going to have to win in Atlanta and that hasn’t changed since they won Game 1.”
Which is why Van Gundy left the Magic with a message on the greaseboard late Tuesday night: “3 to 2 We’re Behind. Be Better Thursday.”
They’ll have to be in Atlanta, where once again so much promises to be on the line for the Magic. From the GM to the coach to the superstar, everyone’s future is on the clock. One win, Howard said, and they would march back and be one of the rare teams to come back from 3-1 in the playoffs. The pressure’s still on Orlando, because they’re fighting for so much more than a playoff series here. They’re fighting for a future with Dwight Howard, which is only everything to this franchise.