Joe Johnson bounced back from a sluggish start to score 24 points and came up with a key defensive play down the stretch, leading the Atlanta Hawks to their fourth straight victory since losing All-Star center Al Horford, 92-89 over the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday night.
The Hawks, taking over first place in the Southeast Division from Orlando, closed the third period on a 14-0 run, but the Trail Blazers responded with a 13-0 spurt starting the fourth to tie the game. It was tight the rest of the way.
Atlanta was up 84-80 when a wild sequence went the home team's way. Jamal Crawford missed on a drive, but Wesley Matthews picked off an outlet pass to apparently give the Blazers another chance. Not so fast. Johnson hustled up behind Matthews to steal it back, then lobbed to Jeff Teague for a dunk with 1:25 remaining.
Crawford, who led the Blazers with 22 points in his return to Atlanta, hit a last-gasp 3-pointer but the Hawks held on.
Atlanta hasn't folded since Horford went down last week with a torn pectoral muscle, which will keep him out for most, if not the rest, of the regular season. He underwent surgery Tuesday and managed to get off a tweet congratulating his teammates: "What's good! Another solid win. Let's keep getting better. Go Hawks!"
Johnson missed his first five shots and was still scoreless with less than three minutes to go in the first half. Then, suddenly, he ripped off three straight jumpers — including a pair of 3s — and knocked down a couple of free throws. The 10-point outburst sparked a 12-4 spurt that pushed the Hawks to a double-digit lead.
Atlanta led 51-42 at the break.
Portland seized the momentum coming out of the locker room, surging into the lead for the first time since late in the opening quarter. Gerald Wallace made a short hook with 4:07 to play in the third, putting the Blazers up 62-61. They didn't score again in the quarter, the Hawks racing to a 75-62 lead.
But the see-saw game suddenly turned Portland's way again. Crawford led the comeback in a role that must've looked familiar to Atlanta fans who cheered him the last years when he played for the Hawks, winning the Sixth Man Award in 2010. He's filling the same role for the Blazers, but it wasn't enough to beat his old team.
At one point, Crawford glanced over to watch Hawks coach Larry Drew calling a play, trying to get a defensive edge. The Blazers guard could've used more help from his teammates. LaMarcus Aldridge added 20 points, while Matthews, with 10, was the only other Portland player in double figures.
The Hawks were more balanced. Josh Smith had 17 points, plus 11 rebounds, while Teague chipped in with 13 points and Marvin Williams added 12. All five players off the Atlanta bench also made the scoresheet.
The Hawks have won six straight over the Trail Blazers, whose last win against Atlanta came on Feb. 20, 2009
NOTES: Trevor Bayne, last year's surprise winner of the Daytona 500, attended his first NBA game. Asked his expectations for the season-opening NASCAR race, about a month away, he said, "We have to win it again, right? Expectations are high. We've got to live up to them." ... The Trail Blazers went without Marcus Camby, who missed his third straight game with a sprained left ankle). Coach Nate McMillan said before the game that Camby would only play in an emergency. ... Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn sat courtside at Philips Arena. The actors are in Atlanta filming the movie "Neighborhood Watch."