ORLANDO, Fla. — New season. New coach. New venue.
Same old result: The Atlanta Hawks still can’t beat the Orlando Magic.
Dwight Howard had 27 points and 11 rebounds, and the Magic extended their recent reign over the Hawks with a 93-89 victory Monday night in a rematch of last season’s lopsided Eastern Conference semifinal.
“Nothing’s changed,” Howard said. “It’s not just about showing them who we are. We know who we are. It’s for us to come out every night and play championship basketball.”
They always do enough against Atlanta.
Vince Carter finished with 19 points and made two huge layups in the final minute-plus to seal the Magic’s victory, the 11th in the last 12 meetings over their Southeast Division rival. Jason Williams also had eight points and eight rebounds to fill in for an injured Jameer Nelson.
Joe Johnson had 23 points and Al Horford scored 16 for the Hawks, who have lost two games in two days after winning their first six this season. And even on a night they held Orlando to 43 percent shooting, the Hawks still ended up losers.
“We have to be more disciplined on both ends, especially coming down the stretch,” Johnson said. “We made crucial mistakes down the stretch in both losses that pretty much hurt us.”
The rematch of last season’s playoff series still had a decidedly different feel.
Almost every time it seemed the Hawks would buckle early — as they did so often against Orlando last season — they came back. Even when Josh Powell took a scary fall in the fourth quarter after being fouled hard by Howard in a midair collision, Atlanta’s backup power forward refused to leave the game and tied the score at 72 with free throws. They just couldn’t close it out.
Carter had a running layup with a little more than a minute left to put Orlando in front by four points, but Johnson came back with a 3-pointer for Atlanta on the following possession.
Carter then made his most spectacular and timely play of this young season: He used a pick-and-roll with Howard to free himself, drove down the lane and finished with a layup as he was fouled by Horford to give the Magic a 91-87 advantage and seal the victory. Carter let out a roar, flexing his muscles and playing to the crowd at the new Amway Center arena.
“It never gets old. Believe me,” Carter said.
Quite a familiar feeling for both teams.
At least this one was close.
Orlando won last season’s four playoff games by an average of 25.3 points in a total blowout between teams that finished second and third in the conference. It was the most lopsided four-game sweep in NBA playoff history.
“As I told our guys, ‘Let’s not look at this loss as a moral victory,”’ new Hawks coach Larry Drew said. “We’ve always felt in our hearts all along that we were capable of playing against any team.”
The Hawks went ahead by 13 points in the first quarter, getting Howard in foul trouble and using a bigger lineup to frustrate Orlando’s front line. Atlanta used more of a motion offense instead of just isolation plays for Johnson — who had a miserable series against the Magic last postseason — to follow a formula that finally seemed like it would work.
But Orlando came back with a furious push from some unexpected places: Backup center Marcin Gortat dove for loose balls and injected some life into the crowd; J.J. Redick penetrated into the lane for layups, and even Williams landed in the front row saving a ball from going out of bounds.
The result was a 19-2 run between the first and second quarters that gave a the Magic a 29-25 lead, returning things to the usual script in this often one-sided series.
“I thought we had a couple of unbelievable dives at one point where we came up with the ball,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. “Those are the kind of plays if you’re going to talk about being a contending team that you’re going to have to do to win games.”
NOTES: Orlando hopes to have Nelson back from his sprained left ankle Wednesday against Utah or Friday versus Toronto at the latest. ... Powell said there was some soreness in his left wrist from the fall but he should be fine. ... Howard was called for his third technical foul of the season.