And now, Act II. For the second time in 48 hours, the Hawks tonight will face the Southeast Division-leading Orlando Magic. It's early January. There are 48 games left to play.
And the Hawks know that one more night like the sloppy four-point loss Wednesday and their shot at the division is good as gone.
"We've got to approach it like a playoff game," Hawks forward Joe Johnson said. "We're trying to win our division, and this is the team at the top that we've got to go through."
The arithmetic is pretty grim. If the Hawks, who trail by five games, can manage to sweep their remaining two games with the Magic --- tonight in Orlando and April 4 at Philips --- Atlanta would still have to finish the year 42-6 (.875) to edge the Magic at its current winning rate. Orlando is on pace to win 64 games. The Hawks (22-12) are a .647 team on pace to win 53.
"I don't think there'd be a great [damage] if we split with those guys," reserve Mo Evans said. "They still have a few tough challenges ahead, given that they have to play Cleveland a couple times. We have been able to split with Cleveland thus far."
Evans played 68 games for the Magic last season, starting 47 of them. He knows how Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy works and saw the Magic's performance Wednesday --- staking a 21-point lead and then holding off the inevitable Hawks comeback --- as a testament to the coach's ability to motivate a team playing on consecutive nights.
"We beat them [by 14 points] opening night, and I guess he told their guys that we were mouthing off about that particular game," Evans said. "He knows the division race is pretty much between them and us. That was just smart on his behalf to find a way to motivate those guys to come off a back-to-back."
As they were Wednesday, the Hawks expect to be at less than full strength tonight. Center Zaza Pachulia, an asset against Orlando's 6-foot-10, 6-11, 6-10 front line, is still suffering from flu-like symptoms that scratched him Wednesday. He did not travel with the team Thursday night.
Reserve point guard Acie Law IV remains in Texas with an ailing family member, and coach Mike Woodson was doubtful he would rejoin the team tonight.
Playing without either of them Wednesday night, the Hawks further hurt themselves with another horrendous night at the foul line. They went 14-for-25 against the Magic and shot a season-low 10-for-20 three games ago against New Jersey.
Even factoring a season-high 13-for-14 performance against Houston on Saturday, the team has converted only 53.6 percent of its free throws in the past three games.
Not exactly championship stuff. But then again, just how legitimate were the Hawks' chances to win a division when the season started? A year ago today, this team was 15-16.
"It's a big goal. It's reachable," Johnson said. "I think it's one that we should take into perspective. We want to be one of the elite teams in the East, and that should be one of our goals."
That goal grows a little more remote tonight if the Hawks allow themselves to be slapped around for three quarters, as the Magic did Wednesday. Any chance Act I isn't finished?
"I hope not," Woodson said. "We've got to come out swinging."