The Atlanta Hawks may be without their highest-paid player in Joe Johnson, but they've been playing incredibly well lately and their hot play continued against the New Jersey Nets Tuesday night, winning 116-101.
The Nets put forth a good effort, really one of their best in a while, but the combination of Josh Smith, Jamal Crawford and Al Horford was too much to overcome.
With Smith consistently hitting outside shots, he proved nearly unstoppable, scoring 34 points on a 14-of-16 shooting night. He also hit 2-of-2 three-point attempts, a good number for him, adding in seven assists, three rebounds and two blocks.
Horford and Crawford combined for 50 points on 63 percent shooting. Horford also had 10 rebounds while Crawford dished out six assists.
As a team, the Hawks shot 60 percent from the floor. They're actually playing better without Johnson than they were with him, helped by an added emphasis on ball-sharing and equal opportunities in terms of shot attempts.
No Atlanta player put up more than 18 shots, with Horford being the only one to total that many.
The Hawks have also figured out that Horford is much more suited to play power forward than center, which has enabled Smith to move to small forward, where he will have a size and strength advantage over most of his competition.
Even though they lost, the Nets played well in this one.
They were at 47 percent shooting, and got major contributions from Devin Harris and Brook Lopez.
Lopez scored 24 points and got to the free throw line 11 times, while Harris tallied 18 points, handed out 13 assists and attempted 16 free throws of his own.
Damion James, whom the Nets acquired from Atlanta in a draft-day trade, saw significant minutes and produced. He replaced Travis Outlaw— actually playing more off the bench than the starter— mainly due to his superior size.
Outlaw is taller than James, but the rookie is noticeably thicker than Outlaw. Smith was able to push Outlaw around whenever he was guarded by him, and James provided more resistance.
James ended up scoring 10 points, pulling down five rebounds in the process, and was the only player with more than 15 minutes on the positive side of the plus/minus stat (the team's net points when a player is on the floor).
Jordan Farmar also played well, his confidence at an all-time high.
New Jersey had its chances in this one. They fought back from a double-digit fourth quarter deficit to get within five with under five minutes to play.
The real undoing of the team was the second quarter. After going on an 8-0 run early in the period to go up 36-29, the Nets were outscored 31-11 the rest of the way.
That stretch was ultimately the reason New Jersey lost the game, as they played hard throughout and never backed down from what is, in reality, a superior team.
The Hawks are, simply put, too good for the Nets right now. If they can play so unselfishly once Johnson returns, they could pose a major threat to Boston, Orlando and Miami in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
New Jersey will have a day to recover before playing in Dallas on Thursday— Avery Johnson's first game against the team he coached to the Finals in 2006.
It's a mismatch on paper, but if the team can play with enough energy, heart and hustle, they could sneak away with a win. A significant contribution from the returning Terrence Williams wouldn't hurt.