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Can't stop Howard

ORLANDO — Time for a new strategy in Atlanta. Something bold. Something gutsy.

If the Hawks want to stop Dwight Howard and the Magic, this may be their best hope:

Find a few new centers and check back with us in six months.

Because it's hard to see anything Atlanta can do in the next week to fix this mismatch. Not after watching a 114-71 Orlando victory in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Tuesday night.

There are blowouts, and then there are embarrassments. Somehow, this was worse. Even in a four-game sweep of Charlotte during the first round, the Magic wasn't this dominant.

"This kind of result," said Hawks center Zaza Pachulia, "has no excuse."

So forget about whether the Hawks can stop Howard. Already you should be wondering whether the Cavaliers or the Celtics can stop him. Whether the Lakers or Suns can stop him.

It is not that he owns the territory immediately around the hoop. There are times Howard claims the entire floor.

He went past Al Horford on a baseline spin move. He came flying down the court for a two-handed dunk on a fast break. He went around, over and even under the arms of defenders. He is a matchup problem for just about any team in the NBA.

And here's the scary thing:

Horford, a former University of Florida standout, is an All-Star himself.

"I thought he played with good poise, good patience down in the post," Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said of Howard. "Clearly he dominated the game."

The Hawks began with Horford taking on Howard one-on-one. And for a half-dozen minutes, it seemed an interesting concept.

On Orlando's first 10 possessions, Howard barely touched the ball. He had one turnover, and his only field-goal attempt was blocked by Horford as Atlanta built a 12-11 lead.

It was at this point that Atlanta coach Mike Woodson lost his mind. Apparently worried about Horford playing with one foul, Woodson pulled him and went with little-used center Jason Collins on Howard. In his first 14 seconds on the court, Collins fouled Howard twice.

I suppose the Hawks were hoping to frustrate Howard the same way Charlotte did with a bunch of goons pushing and banging him. Except this time, Howard did not lose his cool. He did not commit senseless fouls on defense, and he stayed in control on offense.

"He's a solid, low-post player that demands respect," Woodson said. "We tried to mix it up a little bit. I thought it worked early, but we got away from it."

Howard had only one foul in the first half, and that was an inadvertent elbow after a rebound. After averaging a foul every five minutes against the Bobcats, he finished with three fouls in a little over 28 minutes on Tuesday night.

In some ways, this was the perfect matchup for Howard after the stress and frustration of the Charlotte series. He has always been a matchup problem for Atlanta, and so it wasn't difficult for Howard to get comfortable on Tuesday.

"I didn't allow anything to throw me off my game tonight," Howard said. "That's what I have to do the rest of this series, not allow anything to keep me from playing basketball."

He ended up with 21 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots despite playing less than eight minutes of the second half.

"That was the most important thing for Dwight, to just be patient," said Magic guard Vince Carter. "Take your time, and let it come to you. Don't get in a rush, don't try to prove the world wrong, don't try to overdo it."

I suppose you could blame this on the Hawks just finishing up a tough seven-game series with Milwaukee. Or maybe you can blame it on astrology charts or homecourt advantage.

Except it didn't feel that way. And it wasn't really much of a shock. The Hawks had all kinds of trouble with Howard when they lost three of four to the Magic during the regular season. And, by the way, the point differential was 17, 32, and 18 in Orlando's three victories.

Maybe the NBA had the right idea with Orlando's eight-day layoff. If it had not taken the Magic an entire quarter to find its rhythm, the game could have been over 15 minutes after it started. Perhaps the series, too.

Just don't let Van Gundy hear you say that.

"I told them I will have for them (today) virtually every time in NBA playoff history that a team has won a game in a big blowout and then lost the series," Van Gundy said. "You've got to let it go. It's one game, you're happy to have it, but in the playoffs, the margin means absolutely nothing. It should not lead to a false sense of security at all."

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Can't stop Howard 05/05/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 5, 2010 1:51am]

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