The Orlando Magic may have saved their season Tuesday night.
And to do it, they relied on a tried-and-true formula: an improved defense, a critical hustle play by Jameer Nelson and a 48-minute dose of Dwight Howard.
Riding another Herculean performance by their all-star center, the Magic outlasted the Atlanta Hawks 88-82 in an intense, emotional Game 2 to even their first-round series at one game apiece.
"This one to me came down to one thing for us," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. "We played extremely hard."
No one more than Howard.
With his parents and son watching from the Amway Center stands, Howard played the entire game, scored 33 points and collected 19 rebounds. Van Gundy asked him three or four times if he needed to take a take a seat on the bench, and Howard invariably responded, "Keep playing."
"I just didn't want to give 'em a chance to win," Howard said afterward. "I trust my teammates. I just felt like I needed to be on the floor."
Those teammates followed his lead.
Nelson, his co-captain, played almost 38 minutes even though he missed part of the Magic's morning shootaround due to a migraine headache. The diminutive point guard probably turned in the most important play of the game -- and most important play of the Magic's season -- late in the fourth quarter.
The Hawks had gone on a 12-2 run to cut the Magic's lead to 78-76 with 2:14 remaining in regulation.
On the ensuing possession, Atlanta's Zaza Pachulia knocked the ball out of Howard's hands and toward the sideline. Nelson sprinted toward the ball, dived onto the parquet floor and collected it before Kirk Hinrich could.
Nelson passed it to Howard, who sent it to Ryan Anderson, who tossed it to Hedo Turkoglu.
Turkoglu drove to the basket, banked it off the glass and the ball rolled around the rim gingerly before it fell through the hoop.
"It's usually the first guy to hit the ground first that's gonna get the ball," Nelson said.
After Al Horford missed a midrange jumper, Turkoglu drove toward the hoop again, but swung the ball to the right corner, where Jason Richardson hoisted a 3 that put the Magic up 83-76 with 1:08 left.
"No matter what happens, I have to keep myself aggressive all night long," Turkoglu said. "After that shot [to go up 80-76], I was attacking and I found J-Rich in the corner."
With the win, they avoided going to Atlanta for Game 3 on Friday night trailing the best-of-seven series 0-2.
Only three teams in NBA history have ever won a best-of-seven series after they lost the opening two games on their home floor.
"There's a lot of relief," Richardson said. "We really played hard. To get this win, it's good for us."
The Magic never would've evened the series without Howard's effort.
In the second quarter, he helped the Magic recover from a 32-23 deficit.
Trailing by nine, J.J. Redick poked the ball away from Hinrich, and the ball bounced toward the midcourt line. Both players dived to the floor for the ball, but Redick corralled it first. From his back, he threw the ball over his head toward Nelson, who converted the layup.
Howard scored Orlando's next 15 points, and the two teams entered halftime with Orlando ahead 48-42.
"He was phenomenal tonight," Van Gundy said. "I mean, he really was phenomenal tonight. Just the energy itself that he put into the game. I'm not even talking about the numbers. I mean, 33 and 19 is great. You can fault his seven turnovers. But what he put into the game for 48 minutes in a game of that intensity? That's incredible."
Howard grabbed eight of the Magic's 20 offensive rebounds.
"I don't see us giving ourselves much of a chance to win a game giving up that many offensive rebounds," Atlanta coach Larry Drew said. "We opened up a whole new can of worms tonight."
Largely because of Howard, the Magic stymied the Hawks' offense, limiting Atlanta to 39.5 percent shooting.
In the closing seconds of the first quarter, guard Jamal Crawford drove down the lane but saw Howard preparing to leap into the air for an attempted block. Crawford wound up scooping the ball over the backboard.
Joe Johnson, the team's scoring leader in Game 1, scored just 14 points on 6-of-15 shooting on Tuesday.
Van Gundy intermittently dispatched Turkoglu, a 6-foot-10 forward, to defend Johnson, who is 6-7. Turkoglu's height and long arms appeared to give Johnson trouble.
The Magic won even though Turkoglu and Richardson continued to struggle with their shot, combining to go 7-for-28 from the field.
"I'm not worried about the offense," Howard said. "This series is about defense."
After what Howard accomplished, no one was going to argue with him.
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