Alright, I'm sorry: my journalistic principles require me to clarify that misleading headline. Yes, the Atlanta Hawks are in first place, and yes, they were beaten by the Charlotte Hornets tonight. That is all well and true. However, the Hawks were resting all five of their starters-- Jeff Teague because he was hurt, and the other four, because why not? (Well, probably because the Hawks play four games in five days, but let's just pretend they rested their starters because the Hornets were just that intimidating.)
It was a bit disingenuous to say that the Hornets beat the "first-place Atlanta Hawks," but the win counts all the same in the standings, and it was an important victory for a team probably not expecting to compete with a strong playoff team the night after losing to the Wizards in double overtime. And that's saying nothing about this win's impact on the standings themselves; this puts them only a game out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference, and with some tough games coming up for some of the teams ahead of them (namely the Celtics, who have some tough teams coming up), this could be an upset win that helps the Hornets actually make the playoffs this year. Are you pretty surprised that it could still happen? I'm pretty surprised that it could still happen.
Al Jefferson played only 17 minutes tonight after his 31-point, 10-rebound performance in double overtime against the Washington Wizards last night, which was to be expected-- he's getting older and he's racked up a lot of small injuries over the course of his career, so he should be getting a modified Tim Duncan treatment at this point of his career; resting a little bit when he's dealing with minor wear and tear. Anyway, this didn't much matter. Bismack Biyombo played great on defense, Marvin WIlliams stretched the floor with his shooting, and they made it so that Jason Maxiell didn't have to play too many minutes. That's a pretty solid performance from the frontcourt, all things considered.
The backcourt was what really won the game for the Hornets. Gerald Henderson finished a cool 9-10 from the floor for a total of 20 points, while Kemba Walker finished with a game-high 21 on 7-19 shooting, while leading the team with six assists. Mo Williams had a strong performance off the bench, scoring 18 on only nine field goal attempts (thanks to 4-5 shooting from beyond the arc), and PJ Hairston, finally out of Steve Clifford's doghouse, finished in double digits for the first time in a while as he didn't miss a single shot, hitting two each from two, three, and the free throw line.
It was a really good offensive game all around for the Hornets, who didn't turn the ball over until the third quarter. Defensively, the results weren't exactly what most of us would have liked to see, but apparently even the Hawks backups can't miss from three, as they knocked down 15 of 30 shots from range, which compares favorably to their .393 mark from inside the arc. So really, the defense probably wasn't even that bad, it's just that the Hawks have devil magic water in their Gatorade bottles that allows them to be incredibly efficient from three no matter who they put on the court.
So besides that, it really was a strong effort from the Hornets tonight, and they earned the victory, despite the slightly-diminished degree of difficulty. And, let's face it, even a roster made of the Hawks' backups and reserves would probably still finish around 9th in the Eastern Conference. So really, good job by the Hornets tonight to pick up a very important win against a probably-not-terrible team, especially after having to travel back to Charlotte after playing two overtimes the previous night. If they get some luck in the form of the Pacers, Celtics, Nets, and Heat dropping some games, the Hornets could make some noise in the playoff race once Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller return from injury.