ATLANTA (AP)—The long-suffering Atlanta Hawks make no apologies as they relish life in first place in the Southeast Division.
The Hawks never trailed in their 95-82 win over the Orlando Magic Sunday, and with the win Atlanta moved over .500 for the first time since 2002.
It’s only three games, but for the long-suffering Hawks, any winning record — even 2-1—is notable.
“I know it doesn’t mean nothing, but it means a lot to us,” said Hawks forward Josh Smith.
The Hawks have posted seven straight losing seasons and haven’t made the playoffs since 1999. The last time they were over .500 was when they were 6-5 in late November in the 2002-03 season.
“They’re a good team,” said Orlando’s Jameer Nelson. “They are primarily the same team, but when you keep the core of a team together, you’re going to get better.”
Joe Johnson scored a game-high 31 points, helping Atlanta overcome Orlando’s size advantage. Johnson is continuing to emerge as a top scorer after spending the offseason with the USA World Championship team.
“Joe is Joe; he’s special,” said Hawks coach Mike Woodson. “You’re going to see a lot more of that. I truly believe what he went through this summer, experienced with that Olympic team, seeing what that level of game was all about, man, he’s come back a different player. He wants to win. He’s trying to make everyone around him better.”
Johnson is averaging 28.7 points through three games.
“We have another year under our belt,” Johnson said. “We’re maturing as a team … coming out and working hard every night. It feels good to get off to a good start.”
Orlando (1-2) recorded only eight assists, matching a franchise-low, as it lost its first road game of the season.
“It’s very disappointing, the effort that we came out here with from the beginning of the game,” said Orlando coach Brian Hill. “I’m extremely disappointed in everybody’s effort, with the exception of Grant Hill.”
Atlanta point guard Speedy Claxton is still returning to playing shape after missing most of the preseason with a broken hand, and that has prevented the Hawks from maintaining their up-tempo style for extended stretches. Even so, the Hawks started fast in building an early lead.
Zaza Pachulia scored 17 points and Josh Smith added 11 points and 11 rebounds as the Hawks won their second straight home game.
Carlos Arroyo returned after missing one game with a strained right hamstring to lead Orlando with 22 points, including 13 in the final quarter. Arroyo also led Orlando with three assists. Grant Hill added 14 points.
The Hawks led 46-35 at halftime after holding Orlando to 11 points in the opening period.
Orlando’s superior size began to wear on the Hawks in the third period. Dwight Howard went to the free-throw line on three straight possessions after he drew two fouls on Shelden Williams, forcing the rookie to the bench with four fouls, and another on Smith.
The Magic continued to push the ball inside. Following a three-point play by Tony Battie, a basket by Hedo Turkoglu with 6:24 left in the quarter pulled Orlando to a 50-50 tie. There was another tie at 53-all, but the Magic never led.
Orlando pulled to within 77-73 before Josh Childress scored on consecutive possessions, followed by another set of back-to-back baskets by Johnson for an 85-73 lead.
The Magic’s frustration showed when Howard was called for his fifth foul on Pachulia with 1:35 left. Howard then drew a technical foul for slapping the ball at Pachulia following the call.
“You try not to get frustrated with the referees and just try to keep working and play hard, but we kind of got away from that today,” Howard said. “Our energy level wasn’t what we needed it to be today, so that’s the reason we lost.”
Howard was held to 11 points and eight rebounds after averaging 20.5 points and 10 rebounds in the first two games.
Orlando also recorded only eight assists at Golden State on Nov. 16, 2002. … Williams was 0-for-9 from the field for the season before banking in a shot over Darko Milicic with 1:17 left in the first half for his first career field goal. … The Hawks’ other rookie, F Solomon Jones, scored the first six points of his career.