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Hawks still have no answer for Howard

It had gotten to where almost no one could recall what the Orlando Magic looked like in the fourth quarter of a tight game when Dwight Howard wasn't handcuffed by foul trouble.

As it turns out, they don't look too shabby.

While the 112-98 final score might suggest just another routine victory for the Magic and yet another sorry road playoff performance by the Atlanta Hawks, such was not the case Thursday night. Not by a long shot.

Until Jameer Nelson banked in a running 3-point shot to end the third quarter and give the Magic an 84-83 lead, the Hawks appeared on their way to putting their abominable Game 1 showing in the distance.

Jamal Crawford had knocked down a 3-pointer over Nelson seconds earlier, and the shot was shaping up to be a huge momentum builder for a team that had outrebounded the Magic and had yet to miss a free throw in 25 attempts.

Instead, Howard and the Magic simply flexed their considerable muscle as four of their starters finished with at least 20 points. Meanwhile, the Hawks looked spent.

"We had some good looks," Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. "I don't know if fatigue set in or what, but we couldn't make a shot. And we couldn't get stops."

Howard gobbled up one Hawks miss after another down the stretch on his way to grabbing 17 rebounds in addition to winding up with 29 points. But even with the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year asserting himself inside, he hardly was alone in the spotlight.

Nelson bounced back from his first subpar half of the entire postseason to score 13 of his 20 points in the third quarter. And Vince Carter, who was also largely invisible over the first 24 minutes, got on a roll in the second half. When he blocked a shot by Josh Smith and followed that up by nailing a 3-pointer at the other end, the Magic took control for good.

This is a team that has yet to lose a playoff game. They're unbeaten, and it's not farfetched to suggest they look unbeatable.

"Having the opportunity to play for so much, I welcome it," Carter said. "I never put pressure on myself. I just come to play."

"He's a confident guy," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy added. "He's been in that position many, many times in his career. And basically every play he made down the stretch was a good play, the right play."

Unlike Tuesday night, the Hawks offered more than token resistance. Al Horford appeared very much at ease knocking down perimeter jump shots. Crawford ran the offense well in place of the defensively-challenged Mike Bibby, although Woodson quickly refuted any notion that Bibby would not be in the starting lineup for Game 3 in Atlanta.

Even the battery of centers that Woodson threw at Howard, including the sparingly-used Randolph Morris, were fairly effective. It was hardly the Hawks' fault that Howard had the nerve to connect on 13 of his 18 attempts from the line.

"The one thing I noticed more than anything was he wanted to shoot on them," Carter said. "He's sticking to his routine. That's the most important thing. Just feeling confident and still missing free throws is sometimes OK."

Maybe the Hawks need to get free-throw defense tips from Danny Ainge. Or sharpen their elbows. Not that Van Gundy didn't think they weren't physical with Howard.

"He took some very hard fouls on the offensive end of the floor," he said. "He really kept his head tonight because he had five or six times when he was hit damn hard, blows that would have dropped a lot of people."

One of those came in the opening minute of the third quarter. Horford whacked Howard under the nose and had to be tended to before he went to the free-throw line. And no sooner did he miss his shot than he had to come out of the game and be taken to the locker room in an attempt to stop the bleeding.

"I'm human," Howard said, shrugging off the notion that he somehow can't shed blood.

But it's the Hawks who appear to be hemorrhaging. And it's doubtful that a change of venue, even for a team with a history of playing so much better at home, will keep them from inevitably getting beaten to a pulp.