ATLANTA — Joe Johnson’s teammates figured it was all just a joke.
They never expected the Hawks’ best player to return to the lineup only 21/2 weeks after elbow surgery.
Turns out, he wasn’t kidding.
Making a remarkably fast recovery from an operation on his shooting elbow, Johnson scored 16 points and sparked Atlanta to a 90-85 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats on Friday night, a much-needed win for a team that had lost three of four.
“I didn’t believe him at all when he told me he was going to play,” said Marvin Williams, who scored a crucial basket for the Hawks with just over a minute remaining. “I mean, c’mon, the man just had elbow surgery!”
Johnson was supposed to be out at least a month, and maybe as long as six weeks. But he’d been putting up more than 150 shots a day in practice, going 1-on-1 with assistant coach Nick Van Exel and running extensively on the treadmill to stay in some semblance of game shape.
“It was going so well, I was able to get back out there a lot earlier than we expected,” Johnson said. “All the guys were surprised. I think they were of the mindset that I wasn’t coming back until at least after Christmas.”
Johnson, wearing a thick, white sleeve on his right arm, struggled a bit with his shooting touch — not surprising given he went under the knife Dec. 2 to remove loose cartilage from his elbow. But his return clearly inspired the Hawks, and he contributed in ways beyond scoring, doling out eight assists and grabbing five rebounds.
Williams and Al Horford scored 16 points, as well, and they teamed up on the biggest play of the game.
With the Hawks clinging to an 82-79 edge and the 24-second clock winding down, Horford wound up with the ball at the top of the key, looking around desperately for an open man. He spotted Williams underneath, feeding him the pass for an easy lay-in with 1 second left on the shot clock.
“I cut when Joe had the ball, but then Joe passed the ball to Al,” Williams said. “I was surprised to get so open. I don’t know where my guy went. Al is a great passer and he never panics. He was able to find me.”
Josh Smith added 12 points and Mike Bibby 10 to put all five Atlanta starters in double figures.
Boris Diaw and D.J. Augustin led the Bobcats with 22 points apiece, but no one else scored as many as 10. Charlotte shot just 38 percent from the field.
Charlotte was still without one of its top players. Gerald Wallace missed his second straight game with a sprained left ankle, and the Bobcats continued to struggle offensively. They have averaged just over 83 points a game while losing four of five, a slide that has led coach Larry Brown to question the desire of his underachieving team.
He had no such concerns Friday despite another loss.
“Oh, yeah, I can live with that,” Brown said. “You know me, I would never have a problem when we play that hard.”
The Hawks led all the way, scoring the first eight points, but they never pushed the margin higher than 12. Atlanta got a boost at the end of the third quarter when Jeff Teague drove toward the side of the lane against Sherron Collins and flipped up a towering shot that dropped through at the buzzer, pushing the lead to 68-58.
Charlotte’s Stephen Jackson left late in the first quarter with a strained elbow, but returned in the second half. He never found his shot, going 3 of 14 from the field to finish with nine points. After Williams’ key basket, Jackson threw up a wild 3-pointer that missed badly.
“I had X-rays that said it wasn’t broken but it feels like it. It really feels like it,” Jackson said. “I kind of think I shouldn’t have gone out for the second half, but I just wanted to see what I could try to do for my team.”
The Hawks stretched their home winning streak to six in a row — all against teams with losing records.
NOTES: Atlanta was still without sixth man Jamal Crawford, who missed his second straight game with a sore back. ... The Hawks have won seven straight against the Bobcats at Philips Arena. ... The crowd was announced at 15,006 but there appeared to be no more than 10,000 fans actually in the building.