Atlanta Hawks' Zaza Pachulia, right, of Georgia, and Charlotte Bobcats' D.J. White, left, battle for a loose ball during the second half of the Hawks 116-96 win Saturday night.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Atlanta Hawks coach Larry Drew likes his team’s focus as it makes a final push toward the playoffs.
The Hawks, who are a half-game behind Indiana in the race for the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, got 18 points from Joe Johnson on 8-of-10 shooting and 57 points from their bench to beat the Charlotte Bobcats 116-96 on Saturday night.
Although the Hawks stumbled out of the gates in the first quarter Saturday night, they regrouped and took care of business against the NBA-worst Bobcats by scoring a season-high 68 points in the second half.
“We can’t have any mental letdowns,” Drew said, looking ahead to the final nine regular-season games. “Here we are with nine games to go and we’ve shown that we can be a pretty good ballclub. But any coach is looking for that consistency heading down the stretch. This is no time to let up and to not finish the regular season on a strong note so we can carry some momentum into the playoffs.”
Zaza Pachulia had 12 points and 16 rebounds for the Hawks, while Jannero Pargo had 15 points and nine assists and Ivan Johnson added 17 points off the bench.
The Hawks have overcome their fair share of adversity and appear to be on the right path.
“I’m real happy about it,” Drew said, “considering what we’ve gone through this season and looking at the stretches of the road games and the injuries. We’ve weathered a major storm. There’s some games we felt we should’ve won that we let slip through the cracks. But still, looking at where we are and looking at what happened from an injury standpoint, I think we’re very fortunate to be in the position we’re in.”
Said Ivan Johnson: “We’re already in playoff mode.”
The Hawks broke open the game in the third quarter by shooting 17 of 23 from the field while scoring a season-high 38 points. They won their third straight and remained in second place in the Southeast Division, ahead of the struggling Orlando Magic.
“We’ve faced a lot of adversity and a grueling schedule,” said Josh Smith, who had 15 points. “We have persevered with a big injury to a major guy who impacts this basketball team in so many ways in Al Horford. We’ve fought through that and guys have come in and stepped up and contributed big minutes.”
The Hawks scored 56 points in the paint and outrebounded the Bobcats 42-31.
The Bobcats jumped out to a 23-19 lead in the first quarter behind nine early points from Byron Mullens, who carried over the momentum early on from his career-high, 31-point effort Friday night against the Milwaukee Bucks.
But the Hawks began to take over in the second quarter, outscoring the Bobcats 29-13 to take a 12-point lead at halftime behind solid play off the bench from Pargo, Ivan Johnson, Marvin Williams and Willie Green. The reserves played so well that Drew stuck with them for the entire second quarter.
“We know we have to get in and get to work real fast so we can get as many minutes as we can,” Ivan Johnson said.
The third quarter again proved to be the undoing for the Bobcats (7-47), who lost their 11th straight.
The Hawks went on a 12-2 run to open the second half to quickly build a 22-point lead. They hit 11 of their first 12 shots from the field in the period, many of those on uncontested layups. The Bobcats fought back to trim the lead to 12 in the fourth quarter, but couldn’t close the gap any further.
Rookie Cory Higgins, the son of Charlotte president of basketball operations Rod Higgins, scored a career-high 22 points for the Bobcats.
“You always want to win but it felt great to get some extended minutes and show what I can do,” Higgins said. “The next step is trying to get everybody involved at the same point. Once I figure out the right balance, I’ll be all right.”
Higgins saw extended action because starting point guard D.J. Augustin did not play because of a knee ailment.
The Bobcats need to win three of their remaining 12 games to reach the 10-win plateau.
“Cory played well, executed the offense and did a very good job for us tonight,” Bobcats coach Paul Silas said.
“We’re a very young club and not as experienced as that Atlanta club is, but we still tried to hang in there. I’ll give them credit for that.”
NOTES: The Bobcats were without guards Augustin and Reggie Williams, as well as forward Eduardo Najera. Najera had surgery Saturday to repair a frontal bone fracture and Silas says he’s not expected to play for the remainder of the season. … Pargo’s nine assists tied a career high.