MINNEAPOLIS — For years, the Atlanta Hawks struggled. Playing in half-empty arenas, the losses piled up as a young team worked to come together.
Now the patience showed during those ugly years is finally paying off, and the high-flying Hawks are hitting heights not reached since the days of the "Human Highlight Film."
The Minnesota Timberwolves are watching, quietly hoping that they've started down a similar path.
Jamal Crawford scored 26 points and Joe Johnson added 21 points and six assists, leading the Hawks to a 112-87 victory over the Timberwolves on Tuesday night.
Al Horford had 16 points and 11 rebounds and Mike Bibby added 18 points and six assists for the Hawks (20-7), who tied the best start in franchise history.
"We started with a bunch of babies six years ago, 18, 19, 20-year-old kids, and they've grown," coach Mike Woodson said. "The ownership has given me the latitude to continue to coach this team and our core guys have been together now four years and that makes a big difference."
The Hawks tied Dominique Wilkins' 1986-87 team for the best 27-game start. That team lost to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference semifinals. This one has loftier goals.
"We're trying to do something special," Woodson said.
Kevin Love had 15 points and matched a career high with 19 rebounds for the Timberwolves (5-24), who have lost seven games this season by at least 23 points. Al Jefferson added 17 points and 10 rebounds.
"They're kind of the example of a team that got its players young," Love said of the Hawks. "They played together. They stuck together. They grinded out wins together. They had high points. They had low points. But they stuck together. ... That's something I hope I can be a part of one day."
The Hawks bounced back from a loss at Chicago on Saturday and have dropped back-to-back games only once this season. They are 10-2 against the powerful Western Conference and 5-0 against the Northwest Division.
Atlanta took control from the beginning and never let one of the worst teams in the NBA get closer than eight points in the second half.
Every time the Timberwolves made a run, Crawford and Johnson had an answer.
Johnson, who will be a free agent after this season and could be a target for the cap room-rich Timberwolves, scored on a tough drive after Minnesota pulled to 74-66 late in the third period.
Crawford, acquired from Golden State this summer for Acie Law IV and Speedy Claxton, made four of his seven 3-pointers, including two in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach.
The Hawks scored 32 points off 23 turnovers.
The Timberwolves turned the ball over six times in the first 3 minutes, another lackluster start by a young team that has had trouble mustering energy at the start of games.
Marvin Williams' steal and dunk gave Atlanta 16-4 lead early in the first and the Hawks never looked back.
"That set the tone for the entire ballgame," Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis said.
Minnesota can look to the Hawks for hope that better days are ahead. Atlanta won just 13 games in Woodson's first season as coach in 2004-05 and posted losing records in each of his first four seasons. But the core of Woodson, Johnson, Josh Smith and Williams have been together for the last four seasons and have been joined by Bibby, Horford and Crawford in the last three years to develop into one of the up-and-coming teams in the East.
The Hawks reached the Eastern Conference semifinals a year ago and have the fifth-best record in the league this season.
New Timberwolves president David Kahn said the Hawks, Thunder and Trail Blazers are three organizations the Timberwolves are studying as they go about their own rebuilding project.
"I think there is something to be said for letting young people stay together and grow together," Kahn said.
The key, Woodson said before the game, is patience.
"When you've got young players, people expect so much and it's so unfair because these guys don't have a clue when they come
in this league in terms of what it's all about on and off the floor," Woodson said.
NOTES: Timberwolves F Ryan Gomes missed his fifth straight game with a sprained left ankle. Rambis said it was highly unlikely Gomes would play Wednesday night in New Jersey. ... Woodson said he hopes F Joe Smith can return from a dislocated left thumb sometime after Christmas.