Orlando keeps Atlanta in check

ATLANTA - Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic made sure the Atlanta Hawks don't have illusions about their strong start.

All it took was Magic coach Stan Van Gundy challenging Howard to play smarter and harder.

“I came out in the second half and just trusted my teammates,” Howard said. “They made some open shots and I tried to dominate the paint. It doesn’t matter if we’re down 20, we’re going to continue to fight.”

Howard had 22 points and 17 rebounds, Vince Carter added 21 points and the Magic beat Atlanta, 93-76, on Thursday night.

The Hawks dropped to 11-4 in a failed bid to tie Phoenix for the NBA’s best record. They also missed a chance to improve to 8-0 at home for the first time since 1993-94.

Orlando wiped away the disappointment of a one-point home loss to Miami on Wednesday night with its sixth win in seven games.

“I said to them at halftime, ‘The question is, does anybody want to play?’ ” Van Gundy said. “I think we were pouting. We were tired. It’s easy to make an excuse, but at the end of the day they’re going to give you a W or an L. Nobody cares how long they’ve been rested or anything else. Nobody cares.”

Atlanta, which has dropped two straight following a seven-game winning streak, blew a 14-point lead after Joe Johnson banked in a jumper to begin the third quarter.

The defending Eastern Conference champion Magic went on a 25-10 run that ended with Carter’s three-point play and a 64-63 advantage with 2:09 left in the third.

“We were playing against one of the top teams in the East,” Johnson said. “We showed no signs of urgency in the second half.”

Johnson finished with 22 points for the Hawks, a half-game behind Orlando for the Eastern Conference and Southeast Division lead.