They were dribbling for the present Wednesday night at Philips Arena, but they also were dribbling for the future. So pick one. Maybe both. The Hawks or the Magic.
Then again, you might have the Hawks and the Magic settling just below the elite of the Eastern Conference at the end of this season before evolving into the real things someday to replace the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
For the moment, the Magic are in a solo gallop toward that elite duo in the East after a 106-102 victory over the Hawks. This was the first of a home-and-home series between the two, with the next game Friday night in Orlando. Except for the ridiculously sparse crowd of about 14,000 in this one, it had the feel of a possible matchup to come in the playoffs. If so, the Hawks have much to do between now and then, and it starts with this: little things. They become huge things in the postseason.
Take free throws, for instance. The Hawks can't make them. They sank only 14 of 25 attempts against the Magic, which is pathetic but not surprising. They began the evening with the fourth-worst percentage in the league at the line.
The Hawks also were inexplicably lethargic for large portions of the game while the Magic were energetic. Consider, too, that the Magic played Tuesday night, and the Hawks had three days' rest.
Then, down the frantic stretch, when the Hawks turned their 21-point deficit into a two-possession game inside the final two minutes, well, Hawks coach Mike Woodson will tell you the rest.
"If Mike Bibby makes that layup, who knows?" said Woodson, of his usually solid point guard who somehow missed that layup. "We were flat. We were just very, very flat, and it showed."
Still, the Hawks are at least the Magic's equal, and that means both are in the vicinity of NBA prominence.
Dwight Howard has more than a few thoughts on this subject, and he's the prolific rebounding and blocking machine for Orlando at center via Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy. While his team leads the Southeast Division by five games over the Hawks and has the East's third-best record behind the Celtics and the Cavaliers, the Hawks are second in the division with the conference's fourth-best record.
"We're going for the No. 1 spot [in the conference] right now, and the Hawks are right behind us," Howard said. "We're two teams rising, trying to be great, and we're both going to continue to get better. You look at the teams at the top now [in the East], and they're pretty much older teams. We've got a couple of old guys here and there, but for the most part, we've got a lot of young guys, and the core guys have been around each other for a while."
Sounds like the Hawks, a legitimate force out of nowhere in the NBA. Look at it this way: The Magic are loaded with an impressive frontcourt of Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis to complement Howard. In the backcourt, they have rising point guard Nelson, and promising rookie Courtney Lee. The Hawks' starting five is slightly better than that.
Few guard combinations rival that of Joe Johnson and Bibby. You have the special gifts of Josh Smith, the consistent goodness of Al Horford and the growing efficiency of Marvin Williams. Instead, you had the Magic winning this one, and the Hawks learning a lesson: In the battle for the elite, little things aren't so little.