ATLANTA – When Al Horford tumbled to the court, his hopes of playing again this season all but snuffed out, everyone figured he'd take the Atlanta Hawks down with him.
Well, look who's in first place.
The Hawks have won four straight since their All-Star center tore his left pectoral muscle, an injury that required surgery and will keep him out for most if not the entire rest of the season.
A talented but enigmatic team known for buckling under pressure, Atlanta has shown surprising grit and resolve in the wake of Horford's devastating injury.
"Everyone really sucked it up to do a little more to fill that void," forward Marvin Williams said. "You can't really replace a guy like that. The whole team has to chip in a little bit to do the things he does."
Granted, all four wins since Horford's injury have come at home, and three were against teams with losing records. Still, the Hawks have impressed even themselves by managing to hang together, led by Joe Johnson and Josh Smith but getting contributions from nearly everyone on the roster.
"I didn't know how we were going to fare without him because he does so much for this ballclub," Smith said. "I think we were able to answer the bell."
Smith, in particular, has taken his game to a new level — or at least the level everyone long expected from this immensely talented player. Still only 26, he's been in the league for seven maddeningly up-and-down seasons, always appearing on the verge of a breakthrough but never quite establishing himself as one of the league's elite offensive weapons.
When he takes the ball to the basket, he can be unstoppable. Too many times, he's been content to sit outside and pump up jumpers.
Not anymore. Since Horford went down, Smith is averaging 21.8 points and 11.8 rebounds per game, stirring talk that he deserves his first trip to the All-Star Game.
"Josh has learned not to just settle. In the past he would settle for a particular part of his game," coach Larry Drew said. "And he's playing under control. When he plays under control and makes the simple play, it makes him that much more effective. He's a really good passer for a big man, and he is really starting to understand the part of staying aggressive and in attack mode, but yet not force it."
Johnson is a five-time All-Star, but he was coming off a tough shooting year and got off to a sluggish start this season. That all changed when the Hawks lost Horford. Since then, Johnson is averaging just under 25 points a game.
"Everybody really made a conscious effort to step their play up, whether it was the bench or the starters," Johnson said. "There's an understanding that without Al, we're missing a big piece of what we do here. Everybody has really focused in a lot more and really stepped their game up."
Indeed, the Hawks' revamped bench has made Horford's injury a lot easier to absorb. Even though cost-conscious Atlanta failed to re-sign Jamal Crawford, the NBA's Sixth Man winner in 2010, some bargain acquisitions by general manager Rick Sund have paid big dividends.
Tracy McGrady, thought to be all washed up, has shown flashes of the skills that once made him such a feared player. Willie Green is giving the Hawks quality minutes. So is Jannero Pargo, running the second unit. And then there's Ivan Johnson, who's been the biggest surprise of all.
A 27-year-old rookie who's had issues with his temper, he was banned from the Korean league for frequent misconduct, culminating with an obscene gesture toward an official, and he was benched in the D-League for getting too many technicals.
He seems to understand this might be his last chance, playing with the sort of controlled desperation that had always eluded him. Clearly, he's got potential, which is why he was on the court in the final minute of Wednesday's 92-89 victory over Portland.
"The bench has been huge all year," Williams said. "We've started slow a couple of times, but they've come in and really turned it up for us."
Now, to get the fans of Atlanta on board.
As usual, the Hawks rank near the bottom of the league in attendance. Even with football season over in these parts and spring training a month away, the Hawks are still struggling to get noticed. They averaged only 12,128 during their perfect homestand and the upper decks behind each basket were largely empty for the win over the Trail Blazers.
Of course, the skepticism by the fans is easy to understand.
The owners, known as Atlanta Spirit, already sold off the city's NHL team and they had a deal to peddle the Hawks to California businessman Alex Meruelo — but the deal fell through over financing issues.
Now, the owners say the team is off the market and they're fully committed to building a championship contender. But it's hard to take them at their word when two large auxiliary scoreboards at each end of Philips Arena have been dark all season, apparently broken. There appears to be no sense of urgency to get them back on line.
The players aren't worried about empty seats or blank scoreboards.
Compared to Horford's injury, those are minor concerns.
The Hawks play six of their next seven games on the road — beginning Friday at Philadelphia. The stretch should provide a better idea of whether this team can keep winning without one of its best players and emotional leader.
Smith wasn't so sure if they could a week ago. Now, he's more confident.
"If," he said, "we keep doing the right things — keep sharing the basketball, keep helping out on the defensive end, keep communicating — I think we'll win our fair share of games."
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