ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Atlanta Hawks' dominance over the Orlando Magic this year is not just a regular-season phenomenon.
For now, it also includes the post-season.
Atlanta was eliminated by Orlando in last year's playoffs in the most lopsided four-game sweep in NBA history, but this one was much different. The Hawks led by as many as 18 points while running multiple bodies at Howard all night, and the rest of the Magic failed to step up.
"It's a seven-game series and anything can happen," Hawks coach Larry Drew said. "All I wanted us to come in here and do is play hard and maintain our composure. ... I could tell our guys were ready for tonight's game."
Howard tied a career high with 46 points, to go along with 19 rebounds. Jameer Nelson had 27 points but no other Orlando player reached double figures.
The Hawks had five players with at least 13 points, earning their fourth straight victory against the Magic and erasing the sting of a six-game losing streak to close the regular season. Al Horford scored 16, Josh Smith had 15 points and eight rebounds and Kirk Hinrich added 13 points.
Game 2 of the best-of-seven series is Tuesday night in Orlando.
"I think we just had to be excited about where we were," Johnson said. "We understood that we played this team four times this year and we won three of them. We're a confident group. I think the last six games of the season people kinda looked down on us because we lost all six. But now we have a plan. It's coming to fruition and we just have to go out and play together."
After shooting a dismal 36 per cent in the first quarter, the Hawks connected on 30 of their final 52 attempts from the field. They also shot 6 of 14 from the three-point line.
"No question it's different (from last year)," Horford said. "We're a different team this year. This year we feel much more confident."
Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said Atlanta's strong shooting was too much to overcome and will be the focus of his adjustments going forward, along with reducing turnovers. The Magic had 18 giveaways that led to 21 Atlanta points.
The Hawks were in control throughout. They carried an 85-71 lead into the final period and caught a break when Howard was whistled for his fifth foul with 10:58 to play.
But even with Howard playing less aggressively underneath on defence, Orlando put together a 10-1 run that cut it to 92-83 with 4:40 left.
Howard banked in a hook shot with under two minutes remaining to make it 98-90. But a steal by Smith and three-pointer by Crawford put the Magic back into scramble mode and Atlanta was able to play keepaway the rest of the game.
The Magic came out with some renewed offensive spirit in the opening minutes of the third, cutting Atlanta's lead to 57-53. The Hawks responded with an 11-0 run, aided by a string of Orlando possessions that produced either fouls or turnovers.
To compound matters, a few trips later Howard was hit with his fourth personal and a technical foul at the 5:37 mark for pulling Zaza Pachulia to the floor on a rebound attempt. Three straight free throws by the Hawks made it 71-54.
Nelson kept the Magic close, scoring Orlando's next 15 points to trim the edge to 80-69 with under two minutes to play in the period. He said there are no quick fixes to their woes in Game 1.
"I can't really put a finger on it right now," Nelson said.
The Hawks took a 55-48 advantage into the break, relying on hot shooting to keep them out in front for most of the half. Atlanta shot 55 per cent overall, including a 14 of 17 from the field in the second quarter alone.
Howard went 16 for 23 from the field and 14 of 22 from the free-throw line, but he also had eight turnovers. Howard and Nelson combined for 26 of Orlando's 34 field goals.
Howard scored the Magic's first 12 points of the game and had 31 in the first half. His fellow starters and reserve Ryan Anderson combined to miss their first 10 field-goal attempts.
Hedo Turkoglu finally broke the scoring drought for Howard's teammates with a free throw at the 1:20 mark in the first quarter. And J.J. Redick picked up the first non-Howard field goal of the night a few trips later, dropping in a reverse layup off a behind-the-back pass from Gilbert Arenas in transition.
"It's frustrating that we lost," Howard said. "But it's the first game. ... We just need to keep playing."
NOTES: Howard's 31 points in the opening 24 minutes was a new first-half scoring high for the season. His previous best was 26 in the first half at Portland on Dec. 9, when the Magic lost 97-83. ... The 38 points the Magic gave up to the Hawks in the second quarter were the second-most points scored by an Orlando opponent in a half this season. ... During one stretch in the second and third quarters, Atlanta hit 18 of 24 shots from the field.