ATLANTA — The Hawks are on the verge of getting back at the team that blew them out of the playoffs a year ago.
The Orlando Magic can't figure out what's going on.
Before leaving his hometown, though, Dwight Howard issued a challenge to his teammates.
"If they don't believe we can still win," he said, "stay in Atlanta."
No one took the Atlanta native up on the offer, so the Magic headed back to Orlando knowing their season is one loss away from being over much sooner than anyone expected. Jamal Crawford scored 25 points and Joe Johnson hit four big free throws in the closing seconds to lead the Hawks to an 88-85 victory Sunday night for a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.
They can wrap it up in Game 5 on Tuesday night.
"Our confidence is through the roof," Johnson said. "We're just trying to ride this wave right now."
Johnson calmly stepped to the line and made two free throws with 20.2 seconds remaining, extending a one-point lead. He did it again under the same circumstances with 10.5 seconds left, making everyone forget Atlanta's dismal performance at the line to that point. They finished 12 of 20.
"That's what they get paid for. We rely on Joe and Jamal to get it done in tough situations," Hawks forward Josh Smith said. "They answered the bell again."
Magic coach Stan Van Gundy doesn't have to look hard to find the reason his team is on the verge of elimination against a team it routed in 2010, winning four straight by an average of more than 25 points a game for the most lopsided sweep in NBA history.
Orlando is shooting just 40 percent from the field in this series.
"Jamal is playing with unbelievable confidence. Everything he throws up, he knows it's going in," Van Gundy said. "We're at the opposite end of the spectrum. We have a lot of guys throwing it up, and they have no idea if it's going in."
The Magic shot only 39 percent (31 of 79) and actually rallied in the second half to reach that dismal figure.
Still, they had a chance at the end for a tying 3-pointer. Van Gundy set up a play for Hedo Turkoglu, only to have Al Horford knock the ball away.
Turkoglu retrieved it near half-court, leaving him with only enough time to heave one up. It missed badly, and the Hawks celebrated as streamers fell from the rafters of Philips Arena.
Howard led the Magic with 29 points and 17 rebounds. His night was marred by eight turnovers, including a couple of walking calls when he tried to back in on the collapsing Atlanta defense.
Gilbert Arenas, who didn't even play in Game 3, picked up some of the scoring slack with Jason Richardson serving a one-game suspension for an altercation with Zaza Pachulia.
Arenas had 20 points, but no other Orlando player produced more than 11. The Magic continue to struggle with their jump shooting, unable to solve an Atlanta defense that is not consumed by Howard's numbers, allowing it to play the outside guys straight up.
Turkoglu was 2 of 12. Jameer Nelson struggled through a 3-of-12 performance. Ryan Anderson made just 1 of 6. J.J. Redick missed all six of his shots.
"They're playing good defense. I'm not taking anything away from them. But we're getting good enough looks," Van Gundy said. "I don't know what to tell you about the shooting. I really don't."
Crawford, the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year in 2010, carried the offense for Atlanta most of the game. He hit 10 of 18 shots and is averaging a team-high 24 points a game in the series.
"This guy is an assassin offensively," Hawks coach Larry Drew said. "He has really done a phenomenal job in these first four games."
Johnson went 6 for 15 from the field and finished with 20 points. Horford and Kirk Hinrich both had 14 for the more balanced Hawks, with Horford also grabbing 12 rebounds.
"This is a big accomplishment," Smith said. "But it really doesn't mean anything unless we close the deal."
The Hawks led by as many as 16 in the first half, threatening to pull away from an Orlando team that kept throwing up one clunker after another. The Magic shot only 28 percent (12 of 43) before halftime, but Atlanta didn't really take advantage of it. Orlando trailed 46-37 at the break.
"We've got to get off to a better start," Van Gundy said.
With Pachulia barred from the arena, the Hawks were missing one of their primary defenders against Howard. They countered with the trio of Jason Collins, Josh Powell and little-used Hilton Armstrong. Horford and Smith also got time guarding Howard, the Hawks throwing wave after wave at Orlando's big man in hopes of keeping anyone from fouling out.
The Hawks will have Pachulia back for Game 5.Comment on this story
"I can't wait," Johnson said. "He's our workhorse down low."
Orlando can only hope the return of Richardson will spark its offense. Of course, he only shot 30 percent in the first three games, which pretty well sums up how things have gone for the Magic.
"Look," Van Gundy said, "I don't have an answer."
NOTES: Howard came over to the press table to exchange barbs with a couple of trash-talking fans during a break in the third quarter. "You're the biggest whiner in the league," one of them said. "You wanna come out here and play me?" Howard responded. "I'm averaging 33 points a game. Just keep drinking your beer." ... Armstrong had one shining moment, setting a huge pick that sent Quentin Richardson sprawling and freed up Crawford for a 3-pointer. ... Orlando exchanged one Richardson for another in the starting lineup, starting Quentin in Jason's place.