ATLANTA (AP) — With Joe Johnson out with a thumb injury, the Hawks turned to their other All-Star to wrap up a playoff berth.
Al Horford scored six straight points after New Jersey whittled Atlanta’s lead from 30 to 10 points, and the Hawks clinched a playoff spot by beating the Nets 98-87 on Saturday night.
The Hawks took control with 19 straight points early in the game and had the big lead in the third quarter. Horford helped the Hawks fend off the Nets’ late comeback.
“Coach kept going to me, and I was able to make plays,” said Horford, who had 23 points and 12 rebounds.
“I had to step up and make shots. I was able to do that.”
Atlanta lost Johnson, the five-time All-Star, with a strained right thumb in the third quarter. He will miss at least one game as he remained in Atlanta on Saturday night while the team flew to Cleveland for Sunday’s game.
“It’s just sore,” Johnson said. “I can’t really do much with it as far as catch the basketball.
“We’ve got to look at the bigger picture. We’ve got to be as healthy as possible going into the playoffs.”
Josh Smith added 22 points for the Hawks, who are in the playoffs for the fourth straight season.
“I think if we get our act together, we can do something special this year,” Smith said.
Anthony Morrow had 25 points for the Nets, who have lost six of seven.
The Nets outscored the Hawks 56-41 in the second half, but couldn’t overcome the big early deficit.
“It was very tough,” Morrow said. “Defensively, we made some mistakes and they capitalized on them. That’s what a good team does. You can’t have that kind of deficit.”
The Hawks led 74-44 before Morrow led a fourth-quarter surge for the Nets. A putback by Kris Humphries with 5:03 remaining cut Atlanta’s lead to 10 at 88-78.
“They never quit,” Nets coach Avery Johnson said of his team.
“Our second half was something to behold, to come from way back on the road. The guys were battling. … But there are no moral victories.”
Following a timeout by Hawks coach Larry Drew, Horford scored six straight points.
“I was glad that our guys maintained their composure,” Drew said, adding his team was sharp in building the 57-31 halftime lead.
“We really played our game that first half,” Drew said. “We were pushing the ball. We were moving the ball. … We were swinging the ball well. It just seemed like everything was going right. We got some transition baskets. I just thought we played as good a first half offensively as we could and then defensively I thought we did a really good job.”
The Hawks needed a confidence boost after losing four of five and eight of 11.
Morrow, a former Georgia Tech star, scored the game’s first basket. That proved to be the Nets’ only lead.
Johnson’s three-point play launched a 19-0 run for the Hawks, putting Atlanta up by 17 midway through the opening quarter. The Hawks kept the lead in double figures the rest of the way.
Johnson had 12 points before hurting his thumb early in the third quarter as he collided with Morrow as the two reached for a loose ball. He said his thumb was bent back in the collision.
“I didn’t even know if it was still attached,” Johnson said.
Johnson was escorted to the locker room for X-rays before returning to the bench.
After watching the remainder of the third quarter with ice on his hand, he returned to the locker room for the final period.
The loss left the Nets on the verge of elimination from playoff contention.
New Jersey’s Sasha Vujacic had 13 points, while Humphries and Johan Petro each had 12.
Notes: Avery Johnson said G Quinton Ross will likely miss the remainder of the season due to “another disk situation.” Ross missed 12 games earlier this season with a back injury and now has missed five straight. … G Deron Williams was with the Nets but was inactive for the fifth straight game with a strained tendon in his right wrist. Johnson said he expects an update on Williams next week. … The Nets did not shoot a free throw in the first half. … The Nets fell to 5-32 on the road.