Atlanta (0-0) at Orlando (0-0)

Fair Currently: Orlando, FL
Temp: 77° F
  • Game info: 7:00 pm EDT Wed Oct 29, 2008
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With his ability to dominate in the paint, Dwight Howard is recognized as one of the most feared players in the NBA.

Howard and the Orlando Magic look to get off to a strong start to the season in Wednesday’s opener against the visiting Atlanta Hawks, who are trying to build off a surprising finish to 2007-08.

Orlando went 52-30 last season to win its first division title since the strike-shortened 1998-99 season. It eliminated Toronto in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs to win its first postseason series since 1996 before losing to Detroit in five games in the semifinals.

It was the Magic’s best season in a decade, and Howard was responsible for most of the success.

Howard earned first-team All-NBA, second-team All-Defense honors and finished fifth in MVP voting. He averaged 21.0 points, a league-high 14.2 rebounds and led the NBA in double doubles with 69. The 2008 slam dunk champion was also fifth in blocked shots (2.1) and third in shooting percentage (59.9).

In four games against the Hawks last season, Howard averaged 16.5 points and 13.8 rebounds in leading the Magic to two victories.

“It’s amazing, because he scares the (excrement) out of me,” Atlanta coach Mike Woodson said. “He’s doing it with both hands, he’s making his free throws now. C’mon man, that’s tough when you’ve got a big guy that can defend the ball, score, make free throws and block shots and rebound. I mean, there’s nothing he can’t do right now.”

After last season, Howard helped the United States win the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics, and now he has his sights on contending with Boston, Detroit and Cleveland for supremacy in the East.

“Got a gold medal now,” Howard said. “Time to win a championship.”

Orlando lost guards Keyon Dooling, Carlos Arroyo and Maurice Evans, but returns a strong scoring core with Howard, Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis.

Turkoglu averaged 19.5 points and shot 40.0 percent from 3-point range, while Lewis averaged 18.2 points and made 40.9 percent of his shots from beyond the arc last season. The Magic led the East in scoring (104.5), finished second in the conference in shooting percentage (47.4) and led the league with 801 3-pointers.

“This moment never comes for too many people like this,” Howard said. “Not many people win a championship. We have the right opportunity, the right players, the right coaching staff. We’re in a great position to do that.”

The Hawks are probably a few years away from contending for a championship, as their focus is trying to prove last season’s finish was not a fluke.

Atlanta went 37-45 to earn the East’s final playoff seed and made its first postseason appearance since 1998-99. The Hawks faced Boston in the first round and took the eventual NBA champion Celtics to seven games. Atlanta won all three games at Philips Arena, but lost by at least 19 points in each game in Boston.

“Last season is last season. It’s something to build on, but it’s behind us now,” Woodson said. “I’m sure the guys have a wonderful taste in their mouths, especially the guys who had never been to the playoffs.

“But I know what it feels like to win a title and, boy, it would be unbelievable if that ever happened with this team. In order to do that, we’ve got to put forth the time and effort … make it happen. Nobody is going to give you the title. You have to earn it.”

The Hawks return leading scorer Joe Johnson, who averaged 21.7 points, and Josh Smith, who averaged 17.2 points and 8.2 rebounds, but lost valuable sixth-man Josh Childress to a team in Greece.

Atlanta will count on two players who made their Hawks debuts last season to make bigger impacts in 2008-09.

As a rookie, center Al Horford gained confidence throughout the year. He averaged 10.1 points, a team-high 9.7 rebounds and was named the runner-up for the NBA rookie of the year award.

Point guard Mike Bibby was acquired at last season’s trade deadline to direct the offense, and he averaged 14.1 points and 6.5 assists in 33 games for Atlanta.

“We’ve got something special here,” Johnson said. “Now, we’ve really got to validate what we did in the playoffs.”

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Wednesday, Oct 29