By Ken Sugiura
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
With Josh Smith out and the Hawks’ offense flailing, center Al Horford delivered a performance worthy of his status as a two-time All-Star.
Matched against his close friend and former Florida teammate Joakim Noah, Horford rallied the Hawks to an 83-80 victory over the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday night at Philips Arena. Horford matched his career scoring high (31 points) and added 16 rebounds in a rugged performance.
“Al won’t admit it, but I think it’s personal, not in a bad way,” Hawks forward Marvin Williams said. “Noah brings out the best in him.”
Down by 19 points late in the second quarter and on the verge of reprising meltdown losses from earlier in the season, the Hawks held the Bulls to 30 second-half points to register a potentially seminal win.
“We’re a different team than earlier this year,” said Horford, whose two-handed dunk off a pick-and-roll gave the Hawks their first lead of the game with 29.4 seconds to play. “Games like that, we would have kind of given up.”
The Hawks (37-24) took the first game of what could be a pivotal month for their playoff hopes. After returning from a seven-game road swing, they play 12 of their 15 games in March at Philips. Nine of the 12 home games and 10 of the 15 overall are against teams above .500. Coach Larry Drew hopes the rally that took a sizeable bite out of the Central Division-leading Bulls (41-18) sets a tone.
“They have to believe now, regardless of who they line up against, that they can go out there and beat anybody,” he said.
In the home debut of new acquisition Kirk Hinrich, the Hawks displayed a lot of the listlessness that helped set in motion the trade that brought him to Atlanta. Drew’s motion offense failed to produce open shots and shots close to the basket bounced harmlessly off the rim.
The Bulls played aggressively, befitting their status as one of the NBA’s top defensive teams, and scored the first 14 points of the game. Playing before thousands of their fans, the Bulls held the Hawks without a basket for nearly nine minutes in the second quarter, when they took a 44-25 lead.
“I just told the guys to hang in there,” Drew said.
Down 17 at halftime, the Hawks started the third quarter with considerably more energy, forcing turnovers and challenging shots. Horford took the game over, scoring 13 points in the third with four rebounds.
Still, the Bulls responded to each Hawks challenge until the final minute. Coming out of a timeout, guard Jamal Crawford threaded a bounce pass to Horford off of a pick and roll, leading to a dunk and an 81-80 Hawks lead. Joe Johnson’s tight defense of Bulls MVP candidate Derrick Rose on the next possession forced a turnover and led to a dunk for Johnson. Rose and guard Kyle Korver missed 3-point attempts on the final possession.
Smith, who had come to the arena for an MRI on his sprained MCL in his right knee, met the Hawks coming off the floor.
“Josh, he’s not even supposed to be walking like that, and he’s jumping around,” Horford said.