CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Charlotte Bobcats are playing their best basketball of their brief history. The Atlanta Hawks are floundering, bickering and perhaps on the verge of collapse.
Two teams going in vastly different directions were on display Friday night, with the Bobcats getting 21 points from Gerald Wallace and using a near-perfect first quarter to build a big lead and beat the dysfunctional Hawks 98-91 for their franchise record-tying fifth straight victory.
"It’s starting to come together," said Wallace, as the Bobcats remained 1« games out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Things are falling apart for the Hawks.
Atlanta got off to a horrible start, then played the entire second half without power forward Josh Smith, who got into a heated exchange with coach Mike Woodson at halftime that could be heard in the hallway outside the locker room.
Smith, who had 13 points at halftime, spent the second half sitting in the middle of the bench with a towel draped over his back.
"I don’t want to talk about that right now," Smith said when asked about the benching.
Woodson, too, was tightlipped and wouldn’t say if the team’s third-leading scorer would play Saturday against Detroit.
"We’ll determine that tomorrow," he said.
While the Hawks’ grip on the fourth-seed in the Eastern Conference is slipping thanks to its sixth loss in eight games, it was a much different scene just down the hallway in Charlotte’s dressing room. First-year coach Larry Brown has the Bobcats perhaps on the verge of their first playoff berth in franchise history.
Emeka Okafor added 17 points and 11 rebounds, Raymond Felton had 17 points and 10 assists, and Boris Diaw had 13 points and 13 assists as the fifth-year Bobcats matched their longest win streak set late last season — when they were long out of the postseason picture.
But with Brown making his imprint on the team, the Bobcats were efficient, getting assists on 29 of 41 field goals.
Raja Bell, playing despite a sore right shoulder, harassed Hawks top scorer Joe Johnson into 5-of-13 shooting for only 12 points. Al Horford scored 15 points for the Hawks, who fell behind 36-21 after the first quarter.
, and saw their lead over Miami for in the race for home-court advantage in the first-round of the playoffs sliced to a half-game.
"Guys aren’t serious about what’s at hand. And what’s at hand is us winning this fourth spot and holding it down," Woodson said. "So we’ve got to go home now and see what we’re made of."
With Maurice Evans filling in for Smith, the Hawks mounted a second-half comeback, getting within 82-80 on Evans’ tip-in with 7:48 left. At 88-84, Wallace blocked Ronald Murray’s driving layup, leading to Bell’s fast-break layup.
Felton then had a driving layup and a three-point play, the latter giving Charlotte a 95-87 lead with 45 seconds left.
The Bobcats, who had been 0-3 against Atlanta this season, played likely their best quarter of the season to start the game — and statistics showed it was the best in franchise history.
Crisp passing, snappy ball movement and lights-out shooting produced a big lead. The Bobcats had assists on 14 of their 17 field goals, missing just four shots and setting team records for field goals, assists and shooting percentage (81 percent) in a quarter.
Charlotte’s only turnover came on a three-second violation in the final minute, and the only foul — with 9.9 seconds left — was intentional because the Bobcats had a foul to give.
"We share the ball," Wallace said. "We understand if we swing the ball and make that extra pass that Coach Brown has been harassing us about since Day One, we can be a better team."
The Hawks, meanwhile, play their next seven games at home clearly in disarray.
"We’re not on the same page," Johnson said. "It’s kind of tough to play when the chemistry is not there. We’re just not working as one."Notes: Bobcats F Sean May was inactive again and has played in only two games since Dec. 11 because of Brown’s demand that he gets down to 260 pounds. "He’s a lot closer," Brown said. "Now the problem is, who do you sit out?" ... Woodson reminisced before the game about working under Brown in Philadelphia and Detroit. Woodson said Brown gives his assistants a lot of responsibility, but also demands a lot. "For me to sit next to a guy who had a great mind for the game, loves teaching, it was huge for me, in terms of my career," Woodson said.