Joe Johnson nailed four crucial free throws down the stretch and Hedo Turkoglu missed a wild 3-pointer at the buzzer as the Hawks took a commanding 3-1 series lead with an 88-85 win over the Magic on Sunday night at Philips Arena.
Jamal Crawford continued his strong play off of the bench, netting 25 points to give Atlanta a chance to wrap up the best-of-seven series in Orlando on Tuesday.
"We're excited, we can taste that fourth win we need," center-turned-forward Al Horford told the team's TV broadcast. "Tuesday we're going to need to come out focused down there. It's going to be a battle."
The Hawks blew a double-digit lead in this one as the Magic used a furious second-half push to tie the game late. But each time Orlando seemed to gain a little bit of momentum, Atlanta calmed down, regained its composure, converted buckets and got the big stop when they had to.
Nothing was bigger than a Horford stop down the stretch.
Atlanta was staked to a tenuous three point lead before Orlando used their last time out and drew up the last play with just over 10 seconds left where the ball was fronted to Turkoglu. Horford poked the ball away from the Orlando 3-point sniper as the clock ticked down toward zero.
Turkoglu got the ball back, but only had time to throw up a rushed 3-pointer, which missed the mark to give Atlanta the win.
"I almost got the steal," said Horford, who also finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds. "I got a little piece of the ball. I was trying to be aggressive. He had a good look, but the pressure got to him a little bit."
Imagine that, the pressure getting to a team other than a Hawks team considered brittle by some prior to the first-round series.
Atlanta took an 84-77 lead on a Johnson jumper with 1:39 left in the game before the Magic scored the next three buckets. Orlando cut the lead to 84-83 with 22.2 seconds left on a layup by Gilbert Arenas before quickly using their foul to give before fouling Johnson. The Atlanta All-Star, who signed a max contract in the offseason, coolly strolled to the line and connected on a pair of free throws to reestablish the three-point edge.
Howard followed with a put-back bucket off of an Arenas miss with 12.4 left, before Johnson was fouled and sent back to the line a second time with the same result.
Things are just falling perfectly into place for Atlanta.
"He was huge," Crawford told the Hawks' TV crew of Johnson, who finished with 20 points in this one. "He's our leader. He hit those big shots, connected on those big free throws."
The Hawks seemingly have turned around a season where Atlanta has been not-so-clutch at times at home. Forgotten are the memories of those 30-point losses on their home court and gone are those terrible memories of last year when Orlando celebrated on Atlanta's home court after sweeping the club's Eastern Conference Semi-Final series by an NBA-record average 25.3 points per game
Those memories have been replaced with those of a stifling Atlanta defense that let Dwight Howard get his touches but absolutely shut down Orlando's perimeter game all series. That defense wasn't much better than in Game 4, where Orlando went 1-for-22 from behind the arc after connecting on their first 3-pointer of the game. Keep in mind we're talking about a Magic team that was one of the best teams in the league from beyond the arc in the regular season.
The Atlanta faithful will remember the memory of a Hawks fan reportedly heckling the hometown kid Howard about his "whining," with the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year retorting: "You wanna come back out here and play me? I'm averaging 33 points a game. Just drink your beer."
Yep, add a fan to the list of folks to get under Howard's skin, just like Zaza Pachulia, Jason Collins or whoever the Hawks fronted on Howard in this series.
Atlanta fans will take home memories of the pestering, hacking and fouling the former Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy star, even to the extent where Orlando lost their second-leading regular season scorer Jason Richardson for Game 4 after he got into a fight with Pachulia in Game 3 -- sparred on by a rough foul by Pachulia on Howard.
Zaza missed this one, too, but his fighting spirit was evident in this Hawks team. A Hawks team that looked absolutely terrible when they dropped six straight games entering the playoffs. A Hawks team that few gave a chance in the series. A Hawks team that Vegas still bet against even after the Game 1 upset by installing them as an underdog in each of the first four games of the series -- even on their home court.
But this Hawks team is different. Somehow, some way, theyare on the brink of defying the so-called experts and making it to the second round.
What a difference a year makes.
"I think we're a little bit more experienced," Johnson said of the difference between this year and last. "We've gotten to the second round. We came into this series with a mindset that we were going to remain confident. We're just trying to ride this wave and win as many games as we can."
Howard had 29 points and Arenas added 20 off the bench for Orlando, which shot 39-percent (31-for-79) from the field.