Shaquille O'Neal looked for a bright spot in a dismal evening.
"Winning at home makes it sweeter," he said, looking ahead to Orlando's chance to wrap up the Eastern Conference semifinals against Atlanta with a victory Wednesday night.Of course, if O'Neal could make a free throw every now and then, the series would have ended Monday night and the Magic could be resting up for the probable meeting with the Chicago Bulls in the conference finals.
Instead, Orlando faces another game with the pesky Hawks, who blew a 20-point halftime lead in Game 4, but held on to win 104-99. After losing the first three games, Atlanta managed to avoid a sweep in large part because O'Neal's old bugaboo - foul shooting - reared up again at critical moments.
One after another, his shots clanked off the rim, most with not even a glimmer of hope of touching the bottom of the net. By the end of the night, he was 5-for-17, missing all seven in the second half when the game - and the series - was there to be won by the Magic.
"Tonight was my fault," said O'Neal, who is shooting 42 percent from the line in the playoffs. "I don't make excuses for my play."
Atlanta's Steve Smith, criticized for not shooting enough in the series, seemed eager to change that perception in one night, setting a career playoff high with 35 points.
"I happened to hit a couple, so I kept shooting them and hit some more," said Smith, who was 7-of-14 from 3-point range and 12-of-31 overall. "I got more open looks."
The Hawks were brilliant in the first half, leading by as many as 22 points and maintaining a double-digit lead throughout the second quarter. Smith and Mookie Blaylock combined to hit seven 3-pointers in the first period, one shy of the NBA playoff record, and the Hawks led 44-29 to set a franchise record for points in the opening quarter of a playoff game.
Atlanta extended the lead to 67-47 at halftime, but the Magic weren't dead. A 30-9 outburst in the opening 8:44 of the third quarter gave Orlando its first lead since the opening minute.