Atlanta hopes to reverse the trend of embarrassing home losses when they take on Dwight Howard and the Magic on for the first time on their home court in the opening round of the 2011 NBA Playoffs on Friday night (8:00 p.m., ESPN2, ESPN3D, Fox Sports South, 97.9 FM).
The Magic throughly throttled the Hawks in the second round of the playoffs last season, posting four consecutive wins by an NBA record average of 25.3 points. But Atlanta enters with confidence after stealing a game in Orlando to take home court advantage in the series.
However, it's not exactly like home court advantage mattered much to Atlanta and Orlando last year.
In the last Game 3 between the Hawks and the Magic here, Orlando utterly destroyed Atlanta, 105-75. The fans quickly turned on Joe Johnson and the rest of the team, lustily booing their terrible performance. A frustrated free-agent-to-be Johnson told reporters afterward that "he could care less" if anyone showed up for what turned out to be the final game of a disappointing sweep.
Atlanta has played much better against Orlando this year. They've figured out how to frustrate Howard and taken away the Magic's perimeter game. As a result, the Hawks took the season set by a margin of three games to one and split the opening two games of the two club's first round playoff matchup in Orlando.
Howard has gotten his share of points over his first two games, posting 46 in Atlanta's 103-93 victory in Game 1 before netting 33 in an ugly 88-82 Orlando win in Game 2.
The Hawks hope that some hometown theater will help slow down hometown kid Howard in the next two games here in Atlanta. Fans are asked to wear white to both Friday and Sunday's game in what the team is billing a "Dwight Out."
Whether that motivates the former Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy standout and AAU teammate of Josh Smith to another ridiculous performance or helps Atlanta's cause remains to be seen.
One thing that we will be seeing in Game 3 is a different look from Al Horford. The Atlanta center, who shifted over to the power forward position in this series, will be sporting what he called "Patrick Ewing" style knee pad over a balky knee that he tweaked in Game 2. And backup center Etan Thomas may miss the game due to the death of his grandfather. Thomas is one of the legion of bigs that coach Larry Drew has fronted, hacked and frustrated Howard in the series.
It will be interesting to see which Hawks team and what brand of Hawks fans shows up at Philips Arena this weekend. Both the Hawks and their fans have been a bit fickle at the Highlight Factory this year. Countless teams have come into town and beaten Atlanta soundly, while their fans started the all-too-familiar chant of "MVP!" for their team's star.
In fact, Atlanta had just 24 wins on their home court this season. They also fell 17 times here, which is an NBA record for a team that finished above the .500 mark according to the AP's Paul Newberry.
It goes without saying that Atlanta's ability to go inside-out instead of outside-in and hitting their jumpers after Orlando over rotates will pretty much determine how this one ends up. The Hawks will also have to contain Orlando's perimeter game and frustrate Howard into committing fouls, which will soften up the middle.
Sit back and enjoy the ride, Hawks fans. Two wins this here this weekend would put Atlanta in excellent position to upset Orlando in the first round. A split and it's going to be an interesting series. If Orlando wins both games... Let's just not think of that, OK?