Atlanta Hawks' Josh Smith drives past Washington Wizards defender Jan Vesely, of Czech Republic, during the second half of Saturday's game, which the Hawks won, 95-92.
WASHINGTON — Like all NBA coaches in this lockout-shortened season of three-games-in-three-nights stretches, the Atlanta Hawks’ Larry Drew knows he’s going to need to give his top players a chance to catch their breath now and then.
Facing the no-lead-is-safe Washington Wizards, those types of decisions become a little easier.
After Drew sat Joe Johnson and Josh Smith in the fourth quarter Saturday night, that pair of forwards went back in the game and carried Atlanta all the way back from what had been a 16-point deficit. Johnson scored nine of his 16 points in the last period, including a go-ahead 3-pointer in the final minute, and the Hawks beat the Wizards 95-92 for their third consecutive victory.
“I was kind of straddling the fence on whether to put those guys back in the game … but made the decision down the stretch to come back with Joe and Josh,” Drew explained, “and it worked out for us.”
Did it ever. Atlanta, which beat New Jersey 93-84 on Friday night, now can try to make it 3 for 3 when it heads home to face the Utah Jazz on Sunday.
Smith added 20 points and nine rebounds, and the Hawks shut down the Wizards late, limiting the hosts to 14 points on 5-for-17 shooting (29 percent) in the fourth quarter.
“It slipped away from us,” said Wizards point guard John Wall, who shot 1 for 10 and had eight points and three assists. “They gave me my shots. I just missed them.”
Including a 3-point try at the buzzer, the second game in a row that Wall couldn’t come through late in a game Washington let get away. The Wizards led by 22 points Thursday night before losing by two to the Indiana Pacers — a team, like the Hawks, headed for the playoffs.
“We fought for 3½ quarters, and to lose two games like this — I really feel like we just gave it away,” Washington guard Roger Mason Jr. said.
Nene led the Wizards with 21 points and 11 rebounds for his 80th career double-double, and Jordan Crawford scored 20 points.
“We already knew they blew a 22-point lead. That lets you know you’re never out of the game,” Johnson said.
Washington led 73-57 on Crawford’s jumper with a little more than 2 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter. By the time 1 1/2 minutes were gone in the fourth, Atlanta was within 78-74. When Smith hit a jumper from the top of the key with 3:13 remaining, the score was 90-all. And Johnson’s 3 with just under 47 seconds to go made it 93-92, Atlanta’s first lead since the first quarter.
Washington’s next possession ended with Crawford dribbling off plenty of valuable seconds before missing a jumper with 24.9 seconds left. Atlanta guard Kirk Hinrich grabbed the rebound and eventually Johnson went to the line and made both shots for a three-point lead.
“I know some guys were tired, some guys were a little banged up, and we were basically playing catch-up the whole game, and in that fourth quarter we were able to get over the hump,” Drew said. “We don’t panic, and that’s a sure sign of a veteran team.”
The Hawks, of course, have something to play for — and something to prepare for: the postseason. As was noted in marker on the board in the visitors’ locker room Saturday, they entered the day sixth in the Eastern Conference at 28-20.
The Wizards, on the other hand, are assured of a spot in the draft lottery, and it’s only a matter of exactly how good a spot. They came into the game 11-35, and the only NBA team with a worse record was Charlotte.
One indication of how much games mean right now to these two teams: Before the game, the projector screen in Atlanta’s space was showing video of the Wizards playing the Pacers the other night, while the TVs in the Wizards’ locker room were showing the Louisville-Florida matchup in the NCAA tournament.
And yet the Wizards came out on court ready to play. The Hawks? Well, they seemed to sort of sleepwalk through the start.
But they were ready when it mattered most.
“We just kept grinding. We didn’t hang our heads,” Smith said. “We find ways to win close games, and tonight was one of the times we displayed that.”
NOTES: Wizards coach Randy Wittman complained about a foul called on Trevor Booker when he and Smith chased what Wittman called a “50-50 ball” with about a minute left. “Just blows my mind. That foul’s not called in the first 30 seconds of the game, let alone the last minute,” Wittman said. … Washington was scheduled to fly to Boston after the loss, because they play at the Celtics on Sunday, before returning home to face Detroit on Monday. … At halftime, former players including Tom McMillen, Bobby Dandridge and Stan Love — father of Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star Kevin Love — were among those honored by the Bullets & Wizards Alumni Association. After the game, Love chatted with Wall in Washington’s locker room and snapped a photo of the group of reporters waiting to talk to the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft.