In their two seasons as an expansion team, the Bobcats are 6-2 against the Hawks. With Friday night’s win, Charlotte moved to within a game of Atlanta, leaving the Bobcats a chance to finish ahead of the Hawks for the second straight season.
That reality hit the Hawks especially hard after their fourth straight loss.
“That’s big for us,” Hawks guard Tyronn Lue said. “You definitely don’t want to finish last.”
But just by looking at the rosters, it’s not easy to tell which is the expansion team. The Hawks, relying heavily on rookies and second-year players, are slumping late in the season though they have 11 more wins than last year, when they hit bottom with a franchise-low 13 wins.
“They’re a good team,” Ely said. “Everybody picked them as the team to lose more games than anybody, and they’ve proved them wrong.”
The Bobcats held a 13-point lead early in the fourth quarter.
Joe Johnson, who led Atlanta with 35 points, scored with 2:37 left to cut Charlotte’s lead to 106-102. Primoz Brezec pushed the lead back to six points with two free throws, and Alan Anderson’s free throws with 1:16 left gave the Bobcats a 110-102 lead.
Johnson hit a 3-pointer for Atlanta to cut the lead to five and he hit another 3-pointer with 24 seconds left to cut it to 111-108.
Felton and Matt Carroll each made two free throws in the final 21 seconds to preserve the victory.
Each team has improved on its respective lowly 2004-05 finish. With 24 wins, the Hawks have almost doubled their franchise-low 13 victories of last season. The Bobcats won their 23rd game Friday night, five more than last season’s 18.
Each team had strong play from rookies from North Carolina on Friday night. Atlanta’s rookie Marvin Williams, whose production has been inconsistent this season, scored 22 points, including several jams on strong moves to the basket in traffic.
Felton, who was the Eastern Conference rookie of the month in February and March, averaged 20 points and six assists in Charlotte’s first three games against Atlanta this season. He had eight assists Friday night.
The Bobcats also had strong inside play from Ely, who was 10 of 13 from the field, again exposing a season-long defensive weakness for the Hawks.
“I’d been in a little bit of a slump,” Ely said. “The last couple of games I kind of got back into the swing of things.”
Felton and Matt Carroll, who had 17 points, each had three 3-pointers, but the Hawks were hurt more by their inability to stop the Bobcats’ drives to the basket.
“We allowed too many easy opportunities and it’s something we’ve been harping on the last few games,” Lue said. “Unfortunately it bit us once again. This team was the worst shooting team in the NBA, and our game plan was to force them to take nothing but jump shots. But once again they scored too many lay-ups and had too many points in the paint.”
Lue scored 19 points and Josh Smith added 17 for Atlanta.
The Hawks were without starting forward Al Harrington (bruised left hand) and sixth man Josh Childress. Childress was suspended for two games without pay Friday by the NBA for his role in an exchange of blows with Andres Nocioni of the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday night.
Atlanta led 33-23 after the first quarter but Charlotte finished the first half strong for a 55-53 lead and then held the momentum in the third period.
The Hawks have lost 16 of 20, leaving coach Mike Woodson frustrated.
“Until we figure out that we’re not going to outscore teams all the time and that we’ll have to defend and rebound before we think about scoring, we’re going to be a mediocre team,” Woodson said. “That’s something we’re going to have to improve on this summer.”
Felton has scored in double figures in 35 of the last 41 games. … Johnson led the Hawks with nine assists but had six turnovers. … The Hawks had their third sellout of the season, with announced attendance of 18,729. … There was only one lead change in the game.