Hawks at Magic
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Orlando, Fla.
ORLANDO, Fla. — There has been no crowd for the games the Orlando Magic have been playing lately. No officials. No true opponent.
Not even a clock.
"That's the worst part," guard Vince Carter said. "You wish there was a clock up there and you could see it tick down. It's not. There's not even a score. It's just go, go, go."
Practice time is finally over.
When the Magic open their Eastern Conference semifinal against the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night, eight days will have passed since they swept Charlotte. The Hawks needed the full seven games to get by undermanned Milwaukee, meaning they got a turnaround of a little more than 48 hours.
The contrasting layoffs heading into the best-of-seven series between the Southeast Division rivals make for intriguing dilemmas.
The Magic have been simulating opponents' players in practice. They studied film and prepared last week as if they were facing Milwaukee when the Bucks led the series 3-2, then threw that information away, practicing late Sunday just so they could wait until Game 7 finished.
The time off has been longer than anything they've experienced this season — even during training camp.
"It felt like we had went fishing for a minute," Orlando's Dwight Howard said, chuckling. "We was at home chilling. Everybody was at home like, 'When do we play again?'"
Now they know.
The Hawks had a tougher-than-expected series against a Milwaukee team missing star center Andrew Bogut. But Atlanta returned from a monumental Game 5 collapse to run away with the last two and build some momentum heading to Orlando.
Far healthier than a year ago when they were swept by Cleveland in the second round, the Hawks have no overlying injuries. They also have had almost no time to prepare for a team that has dominated them of late.
"It can go against you or it can help you," Hawks coach Mike Woodson said of the layoff. "If your team is banged up, they had a good week to heal some wounds. Sometimes layoffs can hurt you as well. As a coach I'm going in knowing they're ready to play, without a doubt."
The Hawks had lost six straight regular-season games to the Magic until their last meeting, when Josh Smith swooped in to dunk Joe Johnson's miss ahead of the buzzer for an 86-84 win. Atlanta now hopes to keep Dwight Howard in his current foul-trouble funk to knock off the defending Eastern Conference champions.
Otherwise, it could be trouble.
Howard has been a matchup nightmare for several seasons now against his hometown team. Atlanta's undersized centers, led by Al Horford, have struggled to contain Howard, and the NBA's two-time defensive player of the year has forced the Hawks out of the paint.
But Howard was sidelined in constant foul trouble in the Magic's first-round sweep of Charlotte, continually complaining about officiating. Howard, who shot just 37 percent on free throws in the series, was pushed and pulled any time he had the ball near the rim, and his frustration simmered.
The Hawks want to continue Charlotte's formula.
"The bottom line is you've got to be physical," Atlanta's Zaza Pachulia said. "The flopping thing won't work. You've got to be physical.
"He's strong and athletic and runs the floor pretty well, but nobody is perfect," Pachulia added. "He has his minuses, too. We've got to use that to our advantage. We can't let him have too many dunks. If he has a wide-open dunk, we have to put him on the free-throw line."
Howard is taking extra measures to regain his focus, even if it's not always so easy against Atlanta.
Howard had a Hawks jersey growing up with his name stitched on it, so there's always a sentimental feeling against his hometown team. He's usually swarmed by friends and family when he faces Atlanta, although he insists this time will be different.
"I'm not doing none of that stuff," Howard said. "I turned my phones off. You want to get in contact with me, you better scream through the TV and hope I hear you."
The Magic have won 10 straight games, yet coach Stan Van Gundy — a constant worrier — cautioned his team not to feel like they were on "vacation" during their long break. Although players admit it will be strange not having a practice or day off come tonight.
It will have been 13 days since they had a game in Orlando, so even returning to their home arena might be an odd feeling.
One thing they won't miss is having to play against each other.
"We're pretty tired of that," Carter said. "A real game will be a welcome site."