ATLANTA — Dwight Howard kept trying to muscle his way into the lane.
Jason Collins wouldn’t back down, providing hope that Atlanta will fare a lot better if the Hawks get their expected rematch with Orlando in the playoffs.
Joe Johnson‘s floating one-hander in the lane put Atlanta ahead with 55.4 seconds remaining, Jameer Nelson missed two chances to tie it for the Magic, and the Hawks escaped with an 85-82 victory Wednesday night.
Josh Smith led the Hawks with 26 points, and Johnson added 18. But a guy who had only three points and five rebounds might have done the best work of the night.
Collins went body-to-body with Howard in a bruising matchup, helping limit the Orlando star to 17 points on 4-of-13 shooting.
“I was just trying to play physical with him,” Collins said. “I try to eye him up when he crosses halfcourt. I want to meet him early, before he gets close to the basket.”
Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy was impressed.
“That’s the best defense I’ve seen all year on Dwight,” Van Gundy said. “Against Collins, he didn’t get a lot of good shots. I thought he did a great job on him. He’s big and physical. He doesn’t give you anything easy. Dwight had trouble getting good, on-balance shots.”
Nelson, who paced Orlando with 20 points, missed a jumper with 38 seconds remaining, then clanked one off the side of the rim on a drive with 6 seconds left.
Collins grabbed the rebound and was immediately fouled. He missed the first but swished the second, forcing the Magic to look for a 3 on their final possession. The best they could do was a long, turnaround jumper by Hedo Turkoglu that sailed over the rim.
The Hawks won their third in a row and took the season series 3-1, distancing themselves from a dismal stretch in which they lost 14 of 21 games.
They’ll likely face Orlando again in a couple of weeks. The Magic seem assured of the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference, while the Hawks are headed for the fifth seed.
Last year, the teams met in the second round of the postseason, which turned into a monumental mismatch. Orlando won four straight by an average margin of 25 points — the most lopsided sweep in NBA history.
With that in mind, the Hawks wanted to show they could be more competitive with the Magic this time around. They sure did it during the regular season, holding the Magic to 38 percent shooting in the four games.
“It’s the regular season. The postseason is totally different,” Smith said. “I don’t know if we’re sending a message, but we’ve got to let teams know we’re coming to play.”