Josh Smith slumped in front of his locker, trying to figure out how a team that played so hard in an overtime win at Miami could return home and get blown out by 41 points.
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That’s just what happened Friday night. Coming off a victory over LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the mighty Heat, the Hawks were held to the lowest-scoring game in Atlanta history by Chris Paul and the New Orleans Hornets, who took control late in the first half and cruised to a 100-59 rout.
”You can’t explain it,” Smith said. ”You have games like this sometimes.”
The Hawks have never had an offensive performance like this, at least since moving to Atlanta in 1968. Previously, their lowest-scoring game was a 73-63 loss to Cleveland in 1996.
Only Jordan Crawford’s three-pointer with 32 seconds remaining kept Hawks from their worst offensive effort ever: a 57-point game in 1955 when the team was in St. Louis.
”That was about as bad as we’ve played this year, from start to finish,” coach Larry Drew said. ”Nobody wants to lose, especially that way, especially at home. It’s very embarrassing.”
Paul scored 16 points and dished out eight assists in leading the Hornets to their seventh straight win against a team that shot 29 percent.
”It’s fun to play defense,” Paul said. ”It’s great to score, but it’s better to shut teams down and see guys sort of frustrated. When you know that you’re playing team basketball, it’s pretty special.”
The Hornets had won three of their last four games after trailing by 12 or more in the second half. No need for any late-game heroics this time.
”Coach told us before the game we showed we can come back from big deficits, but we can’t count on that every night,” Paul said. ”When we got that big lead, that was also something new for us. We had to figure out how to play with the lead, because you can’t get lax.”
The Hawks, looking totally listless without injured starters Al Horford and Marvin Williams, missed layups, got beat for seemingly every loose ball and played only occasional defense just three days after perhaps their best win of the season, an inspiring 93-89 triumph at Miami.
It was followed by Atlanta’s worst home loss since a 118-74 blowout by Phoenix on March 30, 2000.
The Hawks were actually ahead 29-28 after Joe Johnson’s layup with just under six minutes left in the second quarter. But Drew sensed something was wrong. Very wrong.
”I could not put my finger on it, especially early,” the coach said. ”I did not see the energy and intensity that I saw at Miami.”
He was right.
David West and Marco Belinelli both scored 15 points and Emeka Okafor pulled down 12 rebounds. The Hornets dominated on the boards, 55-32.
Jamal Crawford led the Hawks with 14 points, and Smith was the only other player in double figures with 13. Johnson was 4 of 12 for nine points, less than half his 19.6 average.
No one made any shots or put much pressure on the New Orleans defense. Atlanta was 23 of 79 from the field, 4 of 20 on three-pointers and got to the foul line a mere 11 times.
New Orleans closed the half on a 21-5 run, with Paul contributing 10 points and assisting on Belinelli’s three-pointer. Atlanta went to the locker room down 49-34 and never recovered. New Orleans just kept right on rolling, scoring the first 10 points of the second half.
The Hornets weren’t totally healthy, either, scratching forward Trevor Ariza because of an ailing ankle. Quincy Pondexter stepped in to score New Orleans’ first five points, an indication of the kind of night it would be for the Hawks.
”Pondexter scored a couple of easy baskets early on,” Drew said. ”That’s a bad sign for us.”
It would only get worse. New Orleans was up 66-36 midway through the third quarter, meaning it outscored Atlanta 38-7 over the equivalent of a quarter. The Hornets led by as many as 43 in what essentially turned into an exhibition game, both teams pulling their starters in the final period.
The Hawks’ frustration boiled over when Jason Collins delivered a hard foul on West and was ejected in the opening minute of the third quarter with the game slipping away.
West took a pass from Paul and went in looking for the dunk. Collins doled out the foul with both arms around West’s head, prompting a staredown between the players but nothing more serious as the officials jumped in to push the New Orleans player away.
After a review of the replay, Collins was sent to the locker room. Unfortunately for his teammates, they had to stay around for the rest of it.
NOTES: Collins had two points and three rebounds starting in place of Horford. … Atlanta OF Jason Heyward attended with a group of the Braves’ prospects, who were in the city for an orientation on life in the big leagues. … Before Friday, the Hawks’ worst loss on the season was by 23 points. … The Hawks had just 11 assists, compared to 26 for the Hornets.