After playing perhaps their best first half of the season only to fall asleep for a while after that, the Hawks on Saturday closed ground on the No. 2 team in the East by running the Bulls ragged with a balanced 120-105 win.
While Al Horford put up 33 points and the line of a lifetime, the Hawks’ motto could have been, “Be like Al.”
Atlanta (23-15) was so good from top to bottom and nearly from start to finish that the Hawks probably would’ve ended the Bulls’ six-game winning streak even if Horford didn’t score so big.
It wasn’t just his points on a 15-of-21 shooting night, nor his 10 rebounds, six assists, four blocked shots, steal and no turnovers, but rather his passion-laced approach. His work ethic was contagious, and the Hawks’ energy overflowed on both ends of the floor as they built a 64-51 halftime lead, saw their lead cut to two, and then sprinted away.
“Al Horford was the man tonight,” Jeff Teague said after returning from what appeared to be a seriously sprained left ankle to score 12 points with six assists. “We just followed his lead … When we get up and down like that and play fast, we’re tough to beat.”
Horford had a lot of help.
Paul Millsap added 18 points and eight rebounds as one of four starters to score in double figures, and he had a career-high seven blocked shots as the Hawks brought serious energy on offense and defense. Mike Scott was superb off the bench with 14 points.
The Hawks won their second consecutive game by playing with uncommon energy before and after Chicago (22-13) pulled within two points late in the third quarter, but Atlanta pulled away in the fourth.
The Hawks never trailed, racked up 33 assists, and had 15 steals while forcing 22 Chicago turnovers.
“We understood this was a good measuring stick game for us,” Horford explained. “They’re a really good team. They just won six straight. We’ve been playing hard, but we needed to play harder.”
Here are the key players and five observations from the game:
Three key players
Horford: He tied a career high for field goals made on a 15-of-21 shooting night. Oh, and he was great at more than playing basketball. The man was like a general. “Al Horford … that was very, very special, and I think everybody kind of followed his lead,” said head coach Mike Budenholzer. “He was very vocal in the timeouts, coming out on the court talking.” Can you say All-Star? Again.
Scott: Superb in the first half with 10 points, he was right there when the Bulls tried to make it a game. His one-handed putback jam at the end of the third quarter, and his breakaway dunk early in the fourth — off a Horford pass — helped the Hawks repel the Bulls.
Teague/Dennis Schroder: You’ll take it every time when your point guards combine for 25 points, 14 assists and seven rebounds.
1. Sizzling start
After nearly three weeks of sluggish starts, the Hawks began cooking with high heat right away on both ends of the floor. They scored the first six, led by as many as 13 , and were up 30-19 by period’s end. Horford went for 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting, Millsap blocked three shots and Atlanta had four steals in the period.
2. The rise of Teague-Scott
Teague hobbled off three minutes into the game with a sprained left ankle, only to return in the second quarter as quick as ever. He scored eight in the period and made his only 3. Scott scored 10 off the bench on 80 percent shooting in the second, including two 3-point shots.
3. Siesta time
The Hawks rested upon their laurels for a while after intermission, as Chicago pulled within 77-75 on free throws by Derrick Rose with 3:38 left in the third. All energy from the first half was gone.
4. Energy wise
The common denominator when the Hawks played well — over the first two quarters and the last 14 minutes or so — was what Teague called their, “great juice.” Horford agreed, saying “That’s the way we’ve got to play all the time.”
5. All about that pace
Atlanta did not fear Chicago’s size advantage and wanted to go right at the visitors. The Hawks did while shooting 52.1 percent and drilling the Bulls 66-40 in the paint even though Chicago entered the game No. 1 defensively in the NBA inside of five feet. “I thought the pace at which we played … we need to build off this, see if we can do it more,” Budenholzer said. “We always are talking about how unique Al and Paul are.
“I think those skills hopefully sometimes can counter what can be perceived as maybe not a strength, or that we’re undersized. Some nights it goes against us, but tonight the skills and the athleticism and versatility were obviously very good for us.”