Denver – The Hawks' tall order was a little too tall.
Against a Denver team that has been almost unbeatable at home, the Hawks looked weary and slow in losing 124-104 Wednesday night.
"Our defense was just awful tonight," said coach Mike Woodson.
The Nuggets' 124 points are the most the Hawks have allowed this season. Denver jumped on the Hawks from the start, leading by 10 at the end of the first quarter and never letting the Hawks get closer than six after that.
"Whenever we got close, I just thought we'd have another breakdown to where they'd come up with a big basket," guard Joe Johnson said. "It's almost as if, I don't know, we kind of got relaxed once we got back close and we should have kept playing the defense we were playing. Who knows how many layups we gave up. That was the tale of the game."
The lead hovered between 10 and 14 points for most of the second and third quarters, and then Nuggets backup guard J.R. Smith put the game to bed, exploding for 14 of his season-high 41 points in the fourth quarter.
He drained four of his 10 3-pointers in the last quarter, two shy of Kobe Bryant and Donyell Marshall's NBA record for most threes in a game. Smith wasn't shy about padding his total, missing his last three 3-point attempts with the game well in hand before coach George Karl took him out of the game with 1:41 remaining.
"Coming into the game, I think he was struggling shooting the ball a little bit, so unfortunately he went off against us," center Al Horford said.
The Hawks dropped to 20-8 and, with Orlando's win Wednesday, fell 1 ½ games behind the Southeast Division-leading Magic. Denver is 20-9, first in the Northwest Division.
Having played Minnesota the previous night, the Hawks were up against considerable odds. Since last season, Denver was 19-3 when playing at home against a team that was on the second leg of a back-to-back. Further, of those three losses, two of them occurred when Denver itself was finishing a back-to-back, a luxury the Hawks did not have Wednesday. The average margin of defeat in the 19 wins was 13.6 points.
Evidently, thin air, the weariness of travel and the Nuggets themselves make for a formidable opponent. The Nuggets are 13-1 at home this season and have won 23 of their last 24 regular-season games at the Pepsi Center, dating back to last season.
At altitude, guard Jamal Crawford said, "Your chest burns. It feels like you're running in mud."
The Hawks' lack of energy was most evident on defense, where they gave up countless open shots, failing to rotate and leaving the weakside vulnerable. Overall, the Hawks were late to loose balls, had passes deflected and were repeatedly beaten down the floor in transition. They only made two steals and forced just seven turnovers, which tied and set season lows, respectively.
Offensively, the Hawks actually executed fairly well, collecting 21 assists on their 38 baskets and shooting 48.1 percent from the floor. But the Hawks had just nine second-chance points, 6.8 below their average, and four fast-break points, 11.1 below their average.
For the second consecutive game, Crawford led the team in scoring, gathering 24 points on 9 of 15 shooting, including 4 of 7 from 3-point range. Horford recorded his 14th double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds.
"We just looked lethargic tonight," Woodson said. "We looked like we didn't have any juice. You can't do that against good teams."
Said Horford, "We just weren't tough enough tonight. That's the bottom line."
It was a 45-point turnaround from the first Hawks-Nuggets game, Nov. 7 at Philips Arena. In that game, the Nuggets were without Smith (suspension) and forward Kenyon Martin (leg contusion) and were playing their fourth consecutive road game in five days and second in as many nights. The Hawks gave Denver their worst loss of the season, 125-100.
Said Woodson, "They kind of returned the favor."
Following the game, the Hawks locker room was atypically loose. It was a far different scene than the one following the loss in Chicago last Saturday, when the Hawks gave away a nine-point lead in the final 4:12 against an inferior team.
"We go into every game feeling we're going to win," Johnson said. "It was just one of those nights."