The All-Star Weekend was here. The Magic wanted it to come a little sooner. That often happens in the NBA, but that hardly makes the actual occurrence of it any less... disappointing.
You could say the Magic limped into the All-Star Break with Jameer Nelson missing the game after banging knees with someone in New Jersey and Jason Richardson making his return after a three-game absence with lung inflammation. You could say the Magic were just beat by a team that has their number. Another sub-80 game against the Hawks, without Al Horford and Joe Johnson, could have Magic fans dreading this potential Playoff matchup.
Who knows what the real reason was that the Magic looked extremely lifeless in an 83-78 loss at Philips Arena in Atlanta the night the NBA began to work its way to Orlando for All-Star Weekend. All we do know is that the Magic looked hapless, looked rejuvenated and then looked defeated by the Hawks once again.
Orlando erased a 17-point halftime deficit, finally finding some offensive acument and defensive prowess against an Atlanta team that has confounded Orlando for the last two seasons. J.J. Redick's 3-pointer to open the fourth quarter tied the game. From there the Magic saw the Hawks burn off eight straight points and take the lagic had one more run, but down three points, Willie Green hit a 3-pointer and then lifted a floater over Dwight Howard.
Orlando never could get its offense working consistently or efficiently enough to make another run. Hedo Turkoglu continued to clank poor shots and make a couple of key bad decisions that left the Magic on the short end.
The defense was not much better.
The Hawks grabbed 11 offensive rebounds and each one seemed to end in a kick out to Jannero Pargo (15 points, 3/4 3-point field goals), Willie Green (14 points, 6/10 field goals) or Vladimir Radmanovic (5 points). They hit big shot after big shot to kill Magic momentum or answer the run in the fourth quarter. Orlando just did not have the plays to hold Atlanta off.
At least, that was better than a lazy and lethargic first-half effort that saw Josh Smith score 15 of his 22 points bullying his way to the basket against Ryan Anderson. More than that, Atlanta looked to run and keep running. Off made baskets, off missed baskets and off turnovers, the Hawks were running early.
In a rare occurrence, the Magic were not running back. The transition defense was truly horrible. The energy was just not there.
Finding it was a much more difficult task.
The Magic scored only 10 points in the second quarter, seeing the same poor, stagnant offense that plagues the team at times. It is puzzling to see the team be so slow and immobile offensively in one quarter (the second) and then increase the movement and aggression in the next (the third quarter).
Give the Magic some credit for changing the tactic and finding that energy and aggression to get back into the game. Even lifeless and down 17 points, Orlando was far from out of the game with its ability to shoot 3-pointers.
And that led to the real struggle of the evening. Orlando was unable to get Dwight Howard properly involved in the offense.
Zaza Pachulia used just about every trick in the book to poke and prod Howard. He knocked the ball lose on numerous occassions and slapped at it whenever it became clear for him. More than that, he pushed Howard off his spot and denied the entry pass. Orlando was often spending four or five seconds to try and get the ball in. Pachulia deserves a lot of credit for holding Howard to 12 points on 5-for-7 shooting. Pachulia also did a nice job keeping Howard attached to him with subtle grabs and pushes. Brilliant defense and a strong game for someone who scored just four points.
With Howard virtually shut down, Orlando's offense hit that rut it does when Howard can't establish good post position. The Magic shot 32 3-pointers, making seven. Just not the kind of efficiency you want. And that many 3-pointers with that many misses points to lazy offense or desperate offense.
Either way it is a lack of execution. And a lack of energy.
It was just a bad effort. The team knew it too.
Hopefully it was just a team looking forward to the big party this weekend.