ATLANTA — Looks like the Orlando Magic will receive a tough playoff test from their likely first-round opponent.
Say what you want about the regular season and the postseason being completely different, but the Atlanta Hawks sure looked tough physically and strong enough mentally as they dealt the undermanned Magic an 85-82 loss Wednesday night at Philips Arena.
Journeyman center Jason Collins stood up to Magic superstar Dwight Howard, and with Collins leading the way defensively, the Hawks didn't resemble the team that the Magic easily swept out of the playoffs last May.
"It's a regular-season game," Howard said. "We got it out of the way. We'll be a different team in the playoffs."
Maybe. Maybe not.
Atlanta now has won three consecutive games against Orlando and has captured the teams' regular-season series three games to one.
"If you watched the game today, they're better than us right now," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. "That's the bottom line. I go by things like that. It doesn't mean they will be in the playoffs. I don't think we're afraid to play 'em or anything, but if a team beats you three out of four, you've got to say they're better than you are."
Still, Wednesday's game came down to the very end.
With the Magic trailing 84-82, point guard Jameer Nelson missed a floater in the lane with 6.9 seconds remaining.
Collins collected the rebound, and Nelson immediately fouled him.
Collins made one of two subsequent free throws, giving the Magic one more chance to tie the score.
But Orlando botched its final possession. After Hedo Turkoglu inbounded the ball to Jason Richardson in the Hawks' defensive end, Richardson passed the back to Turkoglu, who took a desperation trey that never hit the rim.
Atlanta's victory wouldn't have been possible without Collins, who helped put Howard into early foul trouble and held the Magic all-star to 17 points on 4-of-13 shooting from the field.
Van Gundy said Collins played "the best defense" Howard has faced all year.
The Hawks wouldn't disagree.
"Outstanding," said Atlanta forward Josh Smith, who led all scores with 26 points.
"He couldn't have played him any better."
Since Collins isn't a threat to score, he can afford to bang against Howard at will and attempt to goad Howard into fouls.
Howard picked up his first personal just 34 seconds into the game as he battled against Collins for a rebound. Then, with 8:06 left in the first quarter, Howard leveled Collins as Howard drove to the hoop with the ball.