Three Hits: Hawks upend Bobcats for key win in East playoff race

The Atlanta Hawks' improving defense held the Charlotte Bobcats to just 40 percent shooting in the paint on Monday night.

Jeremy Brevard/Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Whether it was their 11th game in 17 days or just the back end of a back-to-back, the Charlotte Bobcats came out dead Monday night and got rolled by the Atlanta Hawks 97-83 in a game critical to the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Here are three observations off the game:

The Bobcats entered halftime with a 52-46 lead over the Hawks, but coach Steve Clifford knew the lead was fool’s gold and not really an indication of how his team had really played. He saw how lethargic they had been offensively but they’d been able to camouflage it with made jump shots. He didn’t see the staples of the offense he had seen grow over the last month. They weren’t getting into the paint, or to the foul line, by pounding the ball inside, and the spacing wasn’t what it had been.

Clifford knew the well would eventually dry up.

"I told them at halftime we’re not going to win playing like this. We were just making jumpers. We ran terrible offensive in the first half. Terrible," Clifford said. "We just played with no force. Even the times we drove the ball we were so lethargic in our movements that there were no gaps, no reads, no movement."

Kemba Walker said it was just as much as the spacing was off as the energy. He said both hurt, but he never felt like guys were in the right spots on the floor in their sets and the ball movement was off.

"We did settle for a lot of jump shots and that’s not really us. We get into the paint and try to find open teammates and we weren’t doing much of that tonight," Walker said. "We can’t do that. We want to be as aggressive as possible and get to the paint, get the defense spread and play from there."

These are the ones that hurt double, too — the losses to fellow playoff contenders nipping on your heels.

With their fourth straight win, the Hawks sit just 1 1/2 games back of the Bobcats in the hunt for the Eastern Conference’s 7th seed, and even more importantly, the Knicks sit only 5 1/2 games back of the Bobcats.

Is it possible the Knicks catch up to the Bobcats and force Charlotte all the way out of the playoffs with only 14 games remaining? Probably not. But the Bobcats do still have two games against Brooklyn — the Eastern Conference club playing the best basketball since the All-Star break — along with Houston and Portland over the next four outings. So the time to stand their ground was now because the Knicks’ window is now.

"I think the thing to me is the regular season for me is for two things: to make the playoffs and get your game ready for the playoffs," Clifford said. "And I think every time you step on the floor you’re trying to do that. We obviously didn’t do that tonight, but since the All-Star break I think we’ve looked more and more like a playoff team."

And this one hurts even more because of the lack of effort. The Hawks didn’t just beat the Bobcats, they steamrolled them in the second half. The Bobcats came out with fight in the first quarter, but then seemed to relinquish it, and this isn’t a team that can win without energy.

"It happens sometimes, obviously, but again we can’t do that," Clifford said. There’s some teams that can play like that with a couple guys who can make shots on the perimeter and get going. We’re not that team."

Added Al Jefferson: "They wanted the game more than we did. They played like they wanted it more. They had effort on both ends … no excuses."

Simply put, it was a huge win for the Hawks. Not only does it put another half game between them and the New York Knicks, but it puts the No. 7 seed back in sight. 
And it seems they only have one challenger with the news of Kyrie Irving’s bicep strain sidelining him two weeks, presumably putting Cleveland out of the playoff hunt.

The Hawks’ 13th-ranked scoring defense has been particularly maligned for their protection of the interior at times this season, but it was excellent Monday night, and much of that was because of Pero Antic. The Bobcats scored an uncharacteristic 24 points in the paint and were only 12-of-30 inside the paint. Even Al Jefferson, who has been on a tear since the All-Star break, went 6-of-15 from the floor and only finished with 16 points.

The Bobcats usually get to the line 25 times a night, but they only got up 16 free throw attempts on Monday. Atlanta’s defense particularly clamped down in the third period, holding the Bobcats to just 16 points.

"We have been talking about improving our defense going down the stretch. The activity and the effort defensively in the second half is what allowed us to win against a really good Bobcats team tonight," Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. "This is something that we want to continue building on and continue to improve going down the stretch."

The Knicks are surging, but the Hawks are keeping them at bay with four straight wins and that’s largely because the team that’s dealt with a plethora of injury problems throughout is finally starting to get healthy. 


Antic has been back for two weeks and was stellar guarding Al Jefferson, finishing with 11 points and 10 rebounds in only 27 minutes. And Paul Millsap continues to put the team on his back since his return from a knee injury. It took him two games to shake off the rust but in his last four he’s averaging 23 points and eight rebounds. He torched the Bobcats Monday night with 28 points (12-of-20 shooting) and five boards.

That’s the Millsap the Hawks need with Al Horford out for the year, especially if they want to hold on to one of the final playoff spots in the East.

"I think first we are just getting healthy," Kyle Korver said. "We are getting people back and getting our weapons back. We are spreading the floor, and as long as we are playing with pace, playing with the pass, it’s a hard offense to guard. When we are playing with confidence, we naturally play harder."