The Orlando Magic won the Southeast Division by 12 games last season, never really needing to worry about their lead after the beginning of January.
The Atlanta Hawks think they’ll stick around much longer this time.
The Hawks have the best record in the Eastern Conference through the season’s first month, and they’ll get their first crack at the defending conference champions on Thanksgiving night at Philips Arena.
Orlando (11-4) held a 3 1/2-game lead over Atlanta on Jan. 1, but the Hawks couldn’t get any closer as the Magic cruised to the Southeast title on their way to the NBA finals.
Atlanta (11-3) appears to have a bit more staying power this season, boasting the conference’s only unbeaten home record (7-0), an average victory margin (6.6) bested only by Boston and the fewest turnovers (12.5 per game) in the league.
The Hawks’ seven-game overall winning streak came to an end Saturday with a 96-88 loss at New Orleans, as Atlanta shot a season-low 37.2 percent and played the final three-and-a-half quarters without Mike Bibby(notes), who left with a sprained left ankle.
Bibby is a game-time decision for the Hawks’ first meeting with Orlando - a nationally televised contest Atlanta is using as a measuring stick. A win would give the franchise its first 8-0 start at home since beginning the 1993-94 season 9-0.
“It’s a big test for us,” center Zaza Pachulia(notes) told the Hawks’ official Web site. “If we want to be a winning team these are the teams that you’ve got to beat. Earlier this season we beat Boston in Boston. This is the same category team and same kind of category game.”
Orlando looked like it would be a half-game ahead of Atlanta in the Southeast, but fell one-half game behind the Hawks after a late collapse Wednesday.
The Magic led Miami by seven with 6:40 to play in the fourth quarter, but Dwyane Wade(notes) went on a personal 12-0 run and Michael Beasley’s(notes) follow of a Wade miss with 1.6 seconds left lifted the Heat to a 99-98 win.
While Bibby, who shot 30.4 percent as Atlanta lost three of four to Orlando last season, is questionable for Thursday, the Magic know they’ll be without point guard Jameer Nelson(notes) for at least another month as he recovers from left knee surgery.
Based on Jason Williams’(notes) last two games filling in, Orlando should be in solid shape at the point. Williams, back in the NBA after temporarily retiring last season, has averaged 20.5 points on 66.7 percent shooting in the last two contests.
Williams and the Magic may want to get Howard more involved in the offense to be successful. The Atlanta native took just five shots in the loss to the Heat, dropping Orlando to 2-3 in games he’s taken five shots or fewer.
The Magic are 9-1 when Howard scores 14 points or more.
Howard scored at least 16 in all four meetings with Atlanta last season, and he was especially impressive in his hometown. The reigning defensive player of the year averaged 22.0 points and 21.0 rebounds in two Orlando wins at Philips Arena.