ATLANTA — This was a tale of two homecomings, but with only one story of redemption.
On the night of Joe Johnson’s ballyhooed return to Atlanta, the Hawks stole the spotlight by racing out to a big lead and cruising to a 109-95 win over the Brooklyn Nets at Philips Arena.
Even with Josh Smith serving a one-game suspension on Wednesday night (conduct detrimental to the team), the Hawks had little trouble finding a rhythm against the Nets — boasting six players with double-digit scoring and shooting nearly 60 percent from the field (45 of 78).
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Jeff Teague took honors in scoring and assists, rolling for 28 and 11 against the Nets. However, center Zaza Pachulia (13 points, 11 rebounds) garnered the most attention in the postgame media scrum, finishing only two assists shy of his first career triple-double.
“We’ve been around long enough to know when we play this way, good things happen,” said Pachulia, who collected eight of the Hawks’ 33 assists. “We needed this (victory) desperately.”
Officially for the Hawks (22-16), this was a chance to earn back-to-back home wins. Unofficially, this was an opportunity to show Johnson — an Atlanta staple of seven seasons (2005-12) — how much they have evolved, up-tempo wise, since he joined the Nets last summer via trade.
Johnson (15 points) connected on just four of 15 shots, the result of contested jumpers and planned/unplanned traps from the Hawks’ spirited defense.
The random traps of Johnson “made us aggressive. It made us active,” said Hawks head coach Larry Drew, while also acknowledging the mental grind his team has endured in recent weeks.
That stress may have reached a tipping point just two nights ago, when Atlanta scored a season-low 58 points and incurred a 39-point road drubbing to the Derrick Rose-less Bulls. In the lackluster loss, only reserve Mike Scott scored in double figures.
“All teams go through these (slumps),” said Drew. “You just have weather the storm.”
With the NFL’s Falcons on the brink of hosting their first conference title game Sunday, the Hawks might have caught a break, attention-wise, with Monday’s meltdown. On Wednesday, the boisterous Philips crowd of 15,029 didn’t seem worried by the prospect of another subpar outing.
And the Hawks rewarded that faith (or short-term memory loss) by pouncing on the Nets from the outset. Atlanta bolted to a seven-point advantage after the first quarter (27-20), thanks to 11-of-19 shooting and aggressive fast breaks from Teague and Devin Harris (18 points, five assists).
The second quarter was an extension of the first, with the Hawks forging a 7-0 spurt in the first 77 seconds and then maintaining leads of 14 and 16 points for a vast majority of the half.
The quarter’s best sequence: For starters, Harris collected a long defensive rebound, speed-dribbled to half-court and then fired a hard bounce pass to Teague, who glided for a layup — in traffic. On the next possession, big man Ivan Johnson (eight points, three boards) threw down a thunderous dunk. As a capper, Harris then went coast-to-coast, off a long rebound, before converting an and-one layup (missed free throw).
The Hawks’ third quarter was awash in fast breaks and mounting leads, as well. For one spurt, Pachulia grabbed a rebound and laced a 50-foot outlet pass to Teague, who slammed the ball without incident. A few minutes later, Kyle Korver (11 points) nailed his lone three-pointer of the night. Soon after that, Teague hit Al Horford (17 points, 13 boards) for an alley-oop dunk — amid a sea of Nets onlookers — that vaulted Atlanta’s lead to a game-high 23 points.
All this occurred without Josh Smith, even though he was sorely missed by his coach.
“Tonight, we were good, but with Josh … we’re better!” said Drew.
The Hawks are certainly a different team without Joe Johnson, a supreme talent but methodical scorer. The new Net was understandably disappointed with his club’s play on Wednesday.
“(The loss) kind of hurts, because it seems like from the start we just weren’t really into it. We knew (the Hawks) weren’t going to let me play. We knew they were going to trap every time I caught the ball,” said Johnson, who has now scored in double digits for 20 straight games. “We just didn’t seem to make the right reads.”
Johnson encountered a smattering of boos whenever receiving the ball in half-court sets. He even elicited the occasional fan chant of “We don’t miss you” during free throws. But as part of that, there was also a palpable feeling that both clubs had moved on from the summertime trade, without much ill will.
That notion, however, may be tested on Friday when the Nets (9-2 in their last 11 games) and Hawks complete a rare home-and-home between non-divisional opponents in Brooklyn.