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Hawks 97, Bobcats 83

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Atlanta Hawks pull away late, beat Charlotte Bobcats 97-83

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You can talk about the implications: How the team right behind the Charlotte Bobcats in the standings now has a tiebreaker over them. How the Atlanta Hawks won their 11th in a row over the Bobcats on Monday.

But the simpler thing to take from the Bobcats’ 97-83 loss is this: This team typically plays with focus and energy. They’re not good enough to stray from that script, and Monday was a prime illustration.

Coach Steve Clifford said he knew his team was in trouble at halftime, ahead by six, because it stopped getting the ball inside.

“We ran terrible offense in the first half,” Clifford said. “There was no offensive force, the ball never going toward the basket. We didn’t play our disciplined way.

“Once you start taking (mostly) jump shots and think you’re OK …”

Once you do that, Monday happens. The Bobcats made 11 of 39 attempts from the field in the second half and two of 12 from 3-point range. By game’s end they had scored just 24 points in the lane, compared to 38 for a Hawks team that is typically more perimeter-oriented than Charlotte.

That’s why the four-game overall winning streak and the eight-game home winning streak came to a crashing halt. The Bobcats are 33-35, 1 1/2 games ahead of the Hawks at 30-35.

But it’s effectively closer than that because the Hawks have won the first three games of a four-game season series, thus clinching a tiebreaker over the Bobcats. They play again April 14 in Atlanta.

Clifford often talks about how much better the offense runs when the ball finds center Al Jefferson – not just for the points he scores, but for how the opposing defense must account for Jefferson’s presence, opening other options.

Jefferson finished the game with 16 points and 12 rebounds. This was just the second time in 10 games Jefferson was held under 20 points. Earlier in the day, Jefferson was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week, but he sounded pretty glum post-game.

“They wanted this game more than we did,” said Jefferson, who was outscored by former Utah Jazz teammate Paul Millsap, who totaled 28 for the Hawks. “No excuse … there was not enough effort on defense or offense.”

The Bobcats are probably a safe bet to make the playoffs, but Clifford is more concerned about how his team is playing than what the standings say. They’re headed into a challenging stretch: A home-and-home with the Brooklyn Nets surrounding home games against the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets.

Someone asked Jefferson if he felt frustrated. He was already thinking ahead to the next set of games.

“Don’t have time to be frustrated. You’ve got to get ready for the next game – this is the NBA,” Jefferson concluded.

“No excuses. Back-to-back (games) or whatever. We’ve got to learn from this game.”

Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell
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