After a slow start, the Atlanta Hawks appear to have found a new identity during their recent surge.
The Hawks look to continue their strong play Thursday night with a third win in as many meetings this season against the Charlotte Bobcats, losers of nine straight.
Atlanta won just three of its first seven games without star guard Joe Johnson, the team's leading scorer in each of the last seven seasons before he was traded to Brooklyn in July.
It didn't take long, however, for the Hawks (13-6) to find their groove. Since then, they've won 10 of 12 and own one of the best records in the Eastern Conference.
Josh Smith and Al Horford have become the centerpieces of the offense without Johnson, averaging 17.3 and 16.8 points per game, respectively.
Smith had 16 points and 11 rebounds, while Horford added 13 and 13 for his seventh straight double-double as Atlanta defeated Orlando 86-80 on Wednesday.
"Now with us having to carry a big part of the offense, I think it kind of forces us to be more aggressive offensively and just keep finding each other,'' Horford said.
Horford has been particularly good against the Bobcats, averaging 21.5 points and 12.0 rebounds in two victories last month.
With Horford ranking near the top of the NBA in field-goal percentage (54.5), the Hawks are one of the top shooting teams in the league (45.5). They've also averaged 98.9 points over the last 12 games after totaling 91.9 during the 3-4 start.
"We are playing together. I think we are very unselfish,'' Smith said. "We definitely play with a chip on our shoulders. No one gave us a chance when we lost Joe."
Reserve guard Lou Williams has also played well lately, contributing 15.1 points over his last eight games.
Starting forward DeShawn Stevenson did not play versus the Magic due to a knee injury, but could return for this game.
Kyle Korver returned after a five-game absence because of back spasms and scored nine points - all on 3-pointers.
Atlanta's improved offense figures to continue against a Bobcats team that has allowed 108.2 points during its nine-game skid.
Charlotte failed to hold a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter and lost 100-94 to the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday. The Bobcats (7-14) haven't won since equaling last season's win total in the first 12 games.
"We've got to learn how to be down three or five (points) and execute in those situations," coach Mike Dunlap said.
Kemba Walker continues to be a bright spot after scoring 17 points with six assists. The second-year guard is averaging 21.2 points in his last six games and has scored in double digits in all but one of his 21 contests.
Byron Mullens led Charlotte with 19 points and eight rebounds, while Bismack Biyombo had nine boards and has averaged 9.6 over his last five games.
Poor shooting continues to plague the Bobcats, who have connected on only 40.0 percent (66 for 145) in the past two contests and rank near the bottom of the NBA in field-goal percentage (42.0 percent).
It might be difficult to boost that mark against the Hawks, who rank near the top of the league in field-goal percentage defense (43.7) and scoring (93.3).
"The kind of basketball we kind of need to play, is scrappy, and get after it and just fight," said guard Gerald Henderson.
The Hawks have won six straight overall against the Bobcats and 10 of the last 11 meetings in Atlanta.
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