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The Atlanta Hawks have been without two centers in the post recently, and have struggled as a result. Maybe hitting the road will help take off some pressure. Meanwhile, down in Florida the Orlando Magic continue to succeed with defense. Coming off a win over its in-state rival will certainly give the Magic some confidence entering Friday’s home contest with the Hawks. This will be the first of three meetings between the teams this year. Here’s a look at my NBA picks and a preview on the game.

Atlanta Hawks (17-9) @ Orlando Magic (16-10), 7 p.m. ET

Atlanta had lost three straight home games (after an 8-1 start) without the services of centers Al Horford (torn pectoral) and Jason Collins (elbow), but did finish the homestand with a 97-87 victory Wednesday night vs. Indiana. With Horford out potentially the rest of the regular season and Collins out at least another week, the pressure of the post game has had to fall on Josh Smith (15.6 ppg, 8.9 rpg) and Zaza Pachulia (6.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg). Clearly, without Horford or Collins to provide that physical presence to make Dwight Howard work, the Hawks will have some trouble containing Orlando’s big man. That means that Joe Johnson (18.6 ppg, 3.7 apg), Jeff Teague (12.3 ppg. 5.0 apg) and Marvin Williams (10.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg) will have to help defensively and likely do much more than their season averages to keep Atlanta in the game. The good news is, Atlanta is sound defensively, ranking fifth in the league in scoring defense (91.3 ppg) – so they will find a way to either corral Howard or control the perimeter.

The Magic enter this game with a 4-1 mark in its last five games, most recently posting a 102-89 win over Sunshine State rival Miami Wednesday night. Howard was the story in that game, overshadowing Miami’s “Big Three” by posting 25 points, 24 rebounds, three steals and two blocks to help the Magic to the win. Howard is key to opening up the Magic’s perimeter game, which lit up Miami with 17 3-pointers at a 41-percent clip. With Atlanta so short-handed inside, it will be a case of “pick your poison” with Orlando – let Howard dominate you inside, or leave the shooters free at the arc? Ryan Anderson posted 27 points and had five triples in Wednesday’s game to lead the perimeter attack. Orlando has another advantage in that it also is a very good defensive team, ranking eighth in the NBA in points allowed (91.6 ppg).

The latest NBA odds list the Magic as 5-point favorites, while the total is set for 182 points. On paper, this does not look good for Atlanta. Even if it was at full strength, the team was going to be challenged as to how to best defend the Magic, who have Howard patrolling the paint and very good shooters around him on the perimeter (Anderson, Jason Richardson, J.J. Redick, Hedo Turkoglu, among others). Atlanta’s best hoope might be to become a Western Conference team and try to run at ever opportunity – the Hawks may have a speed and athleticism advantage. But if Orlando stays within its disciplined system and dictates tempo on its home floor the Magic should come away with the win. A game around 90 points will be in Orlando’s favor; Atlanta’s chances go up if hey can get the game near 100 points.

Final Score Prediction: Orlando Magic 98, Atlanta Hawks 86

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