With the offseason trade of Joe Johnson, some figured that the Atlanta Hawks would struggle to make the playoffs, let alone contend for the Southeast Division title.
Al Horford and Josh Smith have had different plans so far.
The duo will try to lead the Hawks to an 11th win in 13 games on Thursday evening in a home matchup against a Charlotte Bobcats club that hasn't won in nearly three weeks.
Atlanta went through an extensive overhaul this offseason, with one of the biggest moves a trade of Johnson to the Brooklyn Nets.
That left the Hawks without one of their top scorers, but they enter play on Thursday just a half-game behind the Miami Heat for the top spot in the division.
Horford and Smith have a lot to do with that. The former is averaging a double-double on the season with 16.6 points and 10.4 rebounds, while Smith is the club's leading scorer with 17.2 a night to go along with 8.3 rebounds.
Horford notched his seventh straight double-double on Wednesday in an 86-80 win over the Orlando Magic, logging 13 points and 13 rebounds. Smith finished with 16 points, 11 boards and five blocks as the Hawks won for the fourth time in five games.
"Now with us having to carry a big part of this offense, it kind of forces us to be more aggressive offensively and keep finding each other," said Horford of his partnership with Smith.
Though Hawks coach Larry Drew opted to rest forward DeShawn Stevenson ahead of playing on consecutive nights due to a nagging knee issue, forward Kyle Korver returned to action after missing five straight because of back spasms and knocked down a trio of 3-pointers.
"We're just in this thing together. Nobody's playing selfish," said Smith. "We have a good, cohesive unit and we're playing with a chip on our shoulder because at the beginning of the season they said we weren't going to make the playoffs."
The postseason is already starting to look like a long shot for the Bobcats, who have lost nine in a row following a 7-5 start. They haven't won since Nov. 24 as they remain tied with last season's win total (7-59).
Charlotte was dealt a 100-94 setback by the visiting Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night.
Byron Mullens ended with 19 points and grabbed eight rebounds, while Kemba Walker netted 17 points with six assists. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist added 11 points and eight boards in the setback.
"A couple times we were close and right in there," said Bobcats forward Gerald Henderson. "We couldn't get a stop and got a little stagnant on offense, and couldn't make a shot. We just have to get after and fight. That's a tough team"
In addition to their current win streak, the Bobcats have lost six straight to the Hawks, including two meetings already this season. Atlanta has won three straight and 10 of its past 11 at home versus Charlotte, notching a 94-91 victory on Nov. 28.
That was the second contest of the Bobcats' current slide, with Smith, Horford and reserve Lou Williams all netting 17 points for the Hawks.