In the Houston Rockets, the Hawks found an opponent as willing to grind as they have been.
In the end, it helped the Hawks' cause to have a headbanded dunking machine on their side.
Josh Smith's putback of a Mike Bibby miss with .7 seconds remaining ended a wild Friday night at Philips Arena and gave the Hawks a 105-103 win, their seventh in a row.
The basket – Joe Johnson intercepted Shane Battier's desperation inbounds pass to end the game – saved the Hawks from what would have been a vexing loss and also their first home loss of the season.
Said Rockets forward Luis Scola of Smith's dunk, "Big-time players make those plays."
The Hawks led 102-92 on a Jamal Crawford three-pointer with 2:07 to play, but the Rockets scored 11 of the next 12 points to gain a 103-103 tie with 5.0 seconds left.
But on the game-winner, Smith attacked the rim from near the free-throw line after Bibby put up his errant fadeaway jumper. The ball hopped out of the cylinder to Smith, who leaped over Battier and emphatically flushed the ball, causing the 16,674 at Philips to erupt.
"When a ball is in the area of Josh, he's going to go get it," Crawford said. "I think he jumps higher than 99.9 percent of the players in the NBA."
The Hawks moved to 11-2, matching the 1997-98 Hawks for the club's best 13-game start since moving to Atlanta in 1968. They are also 7-0 at home and have the best record in the NBA.
"It just feels good," said Smith, who only played 44 seconds in the fourth quarter at the end of an otherwise sub-par night. "It feels good to get a win. As hard-fought as it was, it was worth it."
Despite the fact that the Rockets are without stars Yao Ming (out for the season with foot surgery) and Tracy McGrady (knee), the Hawks were wary of this bunch, who are now 7-6 for the year but have registered wins over the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland.
"They've got a lot of competitors over there, guys that are really good role players," Hawks forward Marvin Williams said. "I think that's why they're doing so well."
The Hawks had reason for concern. They had leads of seven in the first quarter, seven in the second and eight in the third – in addition to the late 10-point margin -- that the Rockets steadily chipped at to keep returning to even. For much of the night, Houston beat the Hawks to loose balls and rebounds.
Said Hawks coach Mike Woodson, "They battled from beginning to the end."
On the play most emblematic of the Hawks' struggles, Houston forward Carl Landry took center Al Horford to the basket and was blocked with 9:35 to play in the fourth quarter. Landry got the ball back, was blocked by Smith, blocked again by Smith and then fouled by Smith on his fourth shot. He made both free throws, giving Houston an 81-79 lead.
In the third quarter, the Rockets were outscored just 22-21 despite shooting 28.6 percent because they hustled their way to 11 offensive rebounds leading to 15 second-chance points. In the period, the Hawks managed just six rebounds total and had only two second-chance points.
"They've got guys that aren't great athletes, but offensive rebounds killed us all night," Smith said. "They played their butts off."
Perhaps the Hawk who was most able to match the Rockets' grit Friday was Williams, who broke out of a slump with a game-high 29 points. Williams played with crispness, scoring on three-pointers, cutters to the basket, dunks and lay-ins.
The last time that Williams, who came into the game averaging 9.0 points per game, led the Hawks in scoring was March 2 of last season.
Williams came out firing, shooting eight times (making six) in the first quarter alone.
Most memorably, with 3:11 remaining, he crashed the basket from the left wing and rammed home a Johnson miss to put the Hawks up 97-90. It was the last of his 13 baskets (on 19 shots), a career high for field goals. He also led the Hawks with nine rebounds.
Coach Mike Woodson called Williams' play "phenomenal. It was good to see Marvin break out into a big-time game. I thought he was solid from beginning to the end."
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