Here are three observations from the Atlanta Hawks' 102-91 win over the Utah Jazz Wednesday night:
1. Though Atlanta forged its way to the playoffs last season, the absence of Al Horford, who missed the majority of regular season with a pectoral injury, was blatantly obvious at times. The two-time All-Star is too good to forget about entirely.
In his rebound season following a grinding recovery process, it has taken a while for Horford to rediscover his former self. But based on his recent stretch of games, the multifaceted forward is back and better than ever.
Horford posted a career-high 34 points to go along with 15 rebounds, five blocks and three assists against the Jazz Wednesday night. Needless to say, it was a performance for the highlight reel and a perfect encore to his 20-20 outing in Detroit. Over his past seven games, Horford is averaging 25.4 points and 12.4 rebounds per game, eclipsing the 20-point mark each time.
"Like I've been telling you guys, I'm healthy. I just need to keep taking care of my body and we need to keep getting better," Horford said in a postgame interview. "I'm liking the way that we're playing. We're really moving the ball around. Jeff (Teague) and Josh were making me look great out there."
Based purely on the eye test, Horford's explosiveness and rhythm has finally returned to his game. That's not to say he hasn't played at a high level at times this season, but there were moments during Wednesday's game where he looked not only like Atlanta's best player, but one of the best post players in the league. He is attacking the rim, hitting shots from all around the paint and truly playing without hesitation.
Due in large part to Horford's play, the Hawks are now 10 games above .500 for the first time this season.
2. Entering Wednesday night's game, the Utah Jazz were dominating Eastern Conference opponents at EnergySolutions Arena, posting a 7-1 home record against the Eastern Conference. There were some quality wins sprinkled in that stretch, too, with wins against the Heat (104-97) and the Pacers (114-110 OT), the top two teams in the East, highlighting the list.
In all, the Jazz boasted an average margin of victory of 11.14 points against Eastern Conference teams visiting Salt Lake City.
With that firmly in mind, this should easily be considered one of the best wins of the season for the Hawks -- by no means a dominant road team throughout this season (15-13). Sure, Atlanta took down Oklahoma City on the road and beat the Pacers and Grizzlies twice, but this was an audible statement after a string of victories versus middle-of-the-pack opponents.
Despite a late Utah push, Atlanta won the first three quarters and managed to close out strong, led by the efforts of Horford and frontcourt mate Josh Smith, who finished with 24 points and 14 rebounds.
"They were a little shorthanded without (starting forward Paul) Millsaps, but this is a tough team to play in their building," Hawks coach Larry Drew said. "I told our guys at the very beginning that we had to control the tempo of the game from start to finish. We had to keep the crowd out of it as much as we could."
The Hawks have now won five consecutive games on the road, eclipsing the 100-point mark each time.
Drew's team will continue on a West Coast road trip for the next week -- visiting Phoenix, Los Angeles and Denver -- and this was a strong start to the trip. If the Hawks can take three of four on the trip (or win them all, obviously) they could very well sneak back into the 3- or 4-seed conversation in the East.
3. The trade deadline and its accompanying Josh Smith rumors are firmly behind this Hawks team.
Offensively, this is the most cohesive the team has looked all season, and it's hard not to make the connection between the Hawks' on-court team chemistry and the fact that the team was largely held intact -- at least for one more playoff run. Four Hawks finished in double figures Wednesday night as the team shot 48.7 percent from the floor.
In the fourth quarter in particular, when Utah made its run to try and cut into the deficit, the high-low action between Smith and Horford -- mixed in with an explosive pick-and-roll combo with Teague -- devastated the Jazz defense. Smith and Teague both finished with seven assists, many of which ended up in the hands of Horford. When Atlanta is clicking, it's an extremely dangerous team: outside shooters Kyle Korver, John Jenkins, Devin Harris space the floor well, Horford and Smith play off each other with best of big men combos and Teague has the ability to attack (attack, attack) with his explosiveness.
Of course, rare is the night when everything comes together. The Hawks will need to find a way to deliver such offensive performances with consistency.
But it was an enjoyable show Wednesday night -- except for Jazz fans.