The Orlando Magic are nine games up on their closest pursuer in the Southeast Division, and have proven they can beat the other top teams in the Eastern Conference.
One club they haven’t been able to defeat, however, is the Atlanta Hawks.
Orlando looks for its seventh win in nine games Monday when it hosts the Hawks, the only team in the conference it is winless against this season.
The Magic (40-24) have knocked off the top two teams in the East - Detroit and Boston - twice each, and they’re 8-1 against their three division rivals other than Atlanta.
They failed, though, in their only attempt to beat the Hawks, losing 98-87 at home Dec. 10. It was Orlando’s third straight loss to Atlanta (26-36) and fourth in five tries dating to the start of the 2006-07 season.
“I felt they really kicked our butts,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said after his team shot 39.7 percent from the field in that game. “They made it very difficult on us to get quality shots.”
Orlando’s problem in its last five games against the Hawks has been offense. The Magic are averaging 104.4 points in 2007-08 and have been the third-highest scoring team in the East over the past two seasons, but they’ve scored only 88.0 points per game against Atlanta in that span.
Scoring was again the issue for Orlando in its last game, at least for the final three quarters. The Magic led Golden State - the league’s worst defensive team - 36-27 after one period, but were limited to 59 points the rest of the way and lost 104-95.
The disheartening defeat snapped the Magic’s three-game winning streak.
“There is no excuse for what happened tonight,” Van Gundy said after watching his team commit 20 turnovers. “We got beat because their energy level was a lot higher than ours. We just got outplayed.”
Dwight Howard is the NBA’s leading rebounder at 14.5 per game, and he’s averaging a career-high 21.7 points this season. Atlanta native Howard, however, hasn’t approached those numbers in his last five games against the Hawks, averaging 14.0 points and 9.6 rebounds.
Rashard Lewis has made more 3-pointers than anyone but Charlotte’s Jason Richardson, and Lewis is hitting at a 49.0 percent clip from beyond the arc in his last seven games. The Hawks have defended the 3 well recently, though, holding opponents to 30.1 percent in their last five games.
That didn’t keep Atlanta from losing four of them before a 97-94 win over Miami on Saturday. Not only did the Hawks snap their losing streak, they picked up an additional victory, finishing the last 51.9 seconds of a disputed game against the Heat from December. Atlanta won 114-111 and jumped into the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s a great thing to get those wins,” said Joe Johnson, who scored 28 of his 39 points in the regularly scheduled game during the first half. “That’s all that matters.”
That performance capped a great stretch of four games in five nights for Johnson, even if it wasn’t so great for his team. He averaged 30.3 points in that span and matched his season high Saturday.
Johnson has been a big reason the Hawks have played well against Orlando lately. He’s averaged 28.8 points in the last five meetings.
Josh Smith, who at 17.2 points per game is Atlanta’s second-leading scorer behind Johnson (21.0), has averaged 22.7 points and 13.0 rebounds in his last three games against the Magic.