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The Orlando Magic is trying to close the first half of this NBA season on a roll and keep itself near the top of the East standings. The Atlanta Hawks would love to end their first half on a positive note and end a skid that has kept them from reaching the milestone 20-win mark in the first half. Two teams that are battling for position among the top-four Eastern teams will face off Thursday night when the Magic pay a visit to Atlanta – both coming off road games the night before. Atlanta won the first meeting this year, pulling out an 89-87 overtime win in Orlando Feb. 10. Here’s a look at tonight’s matchup, plus my possible NBA picks for the game.

Orlando Magic (22-12) @ Atlanta Hawks (19-14), 7:30 p.m. ET

Orlando is riding a 6-1 streak into Thursday’s game against the Hawks. Of course, with Dwight Howard and coach Stan Van Gundy, the Magic is known for its defense and rebounding, as it lists fifth in the NBA in points allowed (91.1 ppg) and ninth in rebounds per game (43.3). The team does have some balance in that five players score in double figures, paced by Howard (20.3 ppg, plus a league-leading 15.3 rpg). That balance is necessary for the Magic to score consistently, because teams are devising ways to slow down Howard inside and dare Orlando to win on the perimeter. It’s likely that will be the case again with Atlanta.

Atlanta would love to end the first half with a win, as they have lost 5 of their last 6 games overall. Offensive struggles don’t bode well for a team that is already mediocre on offense (94 ppg), and facing one of the best defensive teams in the league. If there is a bright spot, it is that Atlanta has a top-10 defensive team (91.7 ppg, ranking seventh in the NBA). The team has had to muddle through without Al Horford, who has played just 11 games due to injury. Zaza Pachulia (7.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg) has been valiant in his place, but Horford’s absence means a shortage of bodies to bang with Howard, which then limits the strategic and tactical options available to the coaching staff in how to handle Orlando’s inside-out offense.

Our latest NBA odds show the Magic favored by 4, while the total has been set at just 177 points. Atlanta won the first meeting with Orlando by sheer will in a very low-scoring game (despite going to overtime). For Atlanta to do that again, it will have to rely on Joe Johnson and Jeff Teague to post big games, and Pachulia might have to double his scoring and rebounding average to essentially neutralize Howard. Orlando has some momentum and confidence coming into this game, while Atlanta could use a confidence boost with its current struggles. In another very tight, competitive game, Orlando may just have too much Dwight Howard for Atlanta. It will be a tight game either way, but on the back end of a back-to-back, jump shots tend to be a little short, so the emphasis will likely be in the paint – and Howard has the advantage over Pachulia.

Final Score Prediction: Orlando 89, Atlanta 84

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