Hawks show ‘killer instinct’ in win over Bobcats

ATLANTA — With the likes of Batman roaming the corridors and locker rooms of Philips Arena, it was rather fitting the Atlanta Hawks openly discussed their ongoing pursuit of a killer instinct Thursday night.

In the aftermath of the team’s 113-90 thrashing of Southeast Division rival Charlotte — setting a season high for points scored and margin of victory — the Hawks not only found some sliver of that ability to put a team away, but they also inched their way into a tie for first place in the division with the NBA defending champion Miami Heat. Yes, the season is just 20 games old, but that is something to hang their collective hat on: A team many expected to struggle early on because of multiple roster changes is in elite company at the moment.

Some players agree with that sentiment, others do not.

“I don’t think nobody in here looks at standings,” said Josh Smith, the team’s rarely-satisfied standout forward, who finished with 18 points and five rebounds. “We’re not trying to concentrate or look at what’s going on in the races. It’s still early, and we understand that. We’re just going to keep trying to build.”

“It always feels good to be No. 1,” frontcourt teammate Zaza Pachulia countered. “It’s important to have this feeling.”

Avoiding the tendency to settle is understandable, especially for a team prone to allowing teams to hang around late in games — to “make things interesting,” as many described it — but when Atlanta is hitting on all cylinders, as it was against Charlotte, it is hard to overlook. The 23-point win was no fluke. It could have been worse, much worse. The Hawks were better in nearly every significant phase of the game (save for free-throw percentage), and when a top-five team in terms of defensive efficiency shoots 57.3 percent from the field, it’s always going to be a nightmare for its opponent.

In this case, the Bobcats could not seem to wake up, no matter which Hawks lineup took the floor.

“The thing I was most impressed about was that we followed our game plan from an execution standpoint. … Just how we did it. I thought we were on the money with our coverages and how we want to defend certain guys,” coach Larry Drew said. “As I’ve stated before, we’ve got to develop that killer instinct when we’re playing well and we have teams down.”

Drew has a point: Atlanta, though still challenging for the best record in the Eastern Conference, has not been effective down the stretch this season.

In the last two weeks alone, the Hawks had been outscored in the fourth quarter in all but one of their eight games, and even in that case it broke even with the worst team in the NBA (Washington). Atlanta averages the third-least fourth-quarter points in the NBA this season — a paltry 21.60-point mark — relying heavily on sizable early leads and then hanging on for dear life as teams storm back.

In all, the Hawks have now outscored just three opponents (Charlotte twice) in the closing 12 minutes.

That will, obviously, need to change as the playoffs inch closer and closer. Drew doesn’t want his team to just squeak by. In the team’s wood-paneled locker room at halftime, he challenged his charges to not let another lead slip away. Not on this night.

“I remember in the fourth quarter with about five minutes to go and we had a 17-point lead. I don’t know if most coaches feel comfortable at that stage, but for some reason I did not. I think we had most of the starters in at that time,” said Drew, who has to be in early conversations for Coach of the Year after finding ways for all these moving parts to gel. “Then we came out of a timeout and got a basket, and then that’s when I started going to our reserves. It’s really a comfort thing. I’ve been in enough situations where big leads vanish in small periods of time and it’s hard to get that momentum.”

It didn’t happen; Atlanta won the fourth quarter, 22-16.

Of particular interest to lead-building was Atlanta’s bench, which not only provided quality minutes, but also expanded on the starters’ lead. Guards Lou Williams and Devin Harris and forward Ivan Johnson, who had not seen much playing time recently, each provided double-digit scoring efforts in relief.

Harris scored 16 of his 20 points in the first half as the Hawks built a 17-point halftime lead. It was rewarding especially for Harris, who, up to this point, is still coming off an off-season leg injury and suffering through his worst season since his rookie year. Harris’ usage and offensive efficiency rates were both at single-season career lows entering the Bobcats game, but his 7-of-11 shooting night (4-for-8 from 3-point range) should do plenty to encourage the notion that he is on the road to full recovery.

The nine-year veteran also added four assists to just one turnover.

“What I’m starting to see from Devin is that his legs are starting to get under him,” Drew said. “He’s starting to get that snap back and his speed back and the quickness back.”

While Drew would not go so far as to say this was Harris’ best performance as a Hawk — it was certainly his most efficient outing on the offensive end — it was clear that Atlanta’s coach can sense his bench and his team coming together. There is that potential, and, for now, the top spots in the East look ripe for the taking.

As the players met with Batman in the win’s aftermath, the parallels of a first-place team still working through its flaws would have made Christopher Nolan nod his head in approval. A buzz is becoming more and more audible in postgame settings around Philips Arena, and winning always feels like winning.

“I’m just hoping our guys can sense it, they can feel it,” Drew said.