ATLANTA — For nearly three quarters, the Atlanta Hawks bore the look of a club resigned to their fate of five consecutive losses in January.
Down 15 in the second half and searching for a way to combat the Jazz’s three-pronged attack of Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Randy Foye (68 combined points), the Hawks were stuck in a prolonged funk of low energy and missed opportunities.
But in a flash, keyed by a three-pointer and three consecutive steals, Atlanta soon turned on the jets and sprinted to a 103-95 home win over Utah on Friday night.
The 23-point swing in the final 15 minutes helped the Hawks (21-14) halt a four-game losing skid. It also put a happy face on a balanced outing where Atlanta produced six double-digit scorers and connected on nine of 19 shots from beyond the arc.
“This was a real gutsy performance by our guys tonight,” said Hawks coach Larry Drew, before acknowledging his team’s baffling struggles at the beginning of both halves. “This game was clearly about our defense.”
The numbers didn’t necessarily reflect Drew’s sentiments early on. For the night, the Jazz shot 47 percent from the field (36 of 76) and drained eight of 20 three-pointers. But during crunch time, they eventually had difficulty getting quality looks, often relying on off-balanced jumpers to compensate for stalled possessions.
At that point, Atlanta was fiercely contesting every shot.
The Hawks had the reverse experience. Falling behind early, failing to find a rhythm in half-court sets and then fleeing from some chances to force the issue after missed Utah shots. Things changed in the second half, though, with guard Devin Harris (24 points, five assists) igniting a flurry of fast breaks and triggering Atlanta’s 35-point fourth quarter.
Oh, and for good measure, Harris also converted on four of five triples — with the most important one forcing an 85-all tie with just minutes to spare.
Drew was thrilled to see Harris knock down shots, of course, but he also reveled in his guard’s aggressive approach to the second half.
“The way (Harris) pushed the ball, I thought that was the difference,” said Drew, before adding, “that’s the Devin Harris I remember trying to defend” (when he played for the Jazz, Nets and Mavericks prior to joining the Hawks).
In the postgame, the low-key Harris invoked a modest attitude to the Hawks’ spirited victory.
“As long as we get the win, that’s the important thing,” he said.
In a long 82-game season, all teams will eventually confront stretches of good and bad play. That’s life in the NBA. But Drew didn’t shy away from Atlanta’s recent downturn either, noting the high-profile clubs who have endured losing streaks this season.
“(Losing is) not OK, but you have to accept it as professionals and move on.”
In the first quarter, both the Jazz and Hawks shot 50 percent from the floor. But Utah’s 25-22 edge came in the form of Foye (25 points) nailing a trio of three-pointers.
For the second quarter, the Hawks strung together one of their strongest back-to-back-to-back sequences of the season:
First, center Zaza Pachulia (12 points, three rebounds) executed a flawless backdoor pass to a cutting Louis Williams, who converted the and-one layup between two Jazz defenders. On Utah’s possession, Atlanta reserve Ivan Johnson (13 points, seven rebounds) deftly denied an entry pass to Al Jefferson … and then spiked the ball off Jefferson while diving out of bounds.
To cap the spurt, Johnson then buried a 16-foot jumper roughly 12 seconds later, bringing the Philips Arena crowd to their largest noise pitch of the first half.
Josh Smith did his part to keep the house loud all night. He tallied 15 points, 10 boards and six assists — highlighted by a sterling alley-oop pass/dunk to Al Horford (12 points) in the fourth quarter.
And then, with under a minute left, Smith essentially sealed the victory with a fadeaway jumper, extending the Hawks’ lead to 98-95.
It’ll be a brief window of celebration for the Hawks, who embark on a two-game road trip in the next three days (Washington, Chicago). On Saturday, they’ll meet the division rival Wizards (with John Wall).
Two nights later, they’ll take on a 20-14 Bulls team that’s been holding their ground in the Central standings… without former MVP Derrick Rose.