MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -Chatting with his assistants after the game, coach Larry Drew proudly pointed to another sign of progress for his flourishing Atlanta Hawks.
Missing a couple of key players and enduring a low-impact performance by All-Star Joe Johnson for the second straight game, the Hawks still improved to 6-0 with another win on the road.
``Guys are always stepping up, always filling positions,' super sub Jamal Crawford said. ``Hopefully every time somebody's off, somebody else can pick 'em up.'
Josh Smith was a beast on both ends of the court and Crawford came back from a one-game absence due to a toe injury to score a season-high 22 points for the Hawks in a 113-103 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night.
Smith played 40 minutes and had 20 points, eight rebounds, six assists and five more blocked shots for his league-leading total of 25, and Mike Bibby had 15 points and Al Horford added 14 points and 12 rebounds.
``The last couple games there's been a lid on the basket for Joe,' Drew said. ``In the past we've struggled if he hasn't shot the ball well. I think it just goes to show our depth.'
Corey Brewer scored a season-high 18 points for the Timberwolves, rookie Wes Johnson hit four 3-pointers for 18 points and Michael Beasley scored 16 points in his return from a one-game absence due to a hip injury. They kept the game close for most of the first half, but nearly every time they got the crowd going with a highlight-reel play, the Hawks had an answer.
Smith got loose for a fastbreak midway through the third quarter and threw down a one-handed dunk, drawing a foul and converting a three-point play for a 75-58 lead.
The only unbeaten team in the top-heavy Eastern Conference, the Hawks have designs on finally cracking that elite echelon with Johnson and Horford the latest core players to sign long-term contracts and enviable depth led by Crawford, who was chosen the NBA's top sixth man last season.
``He gives us exactly what we need,' Drew said. ``He plays his role coming off the bench better than anybody I've seen.'
The Hawks have their weaknesses, like offensive rebounding, an area of strength for the Wolves that they weren't able to fully exploit in this game, but a balanced lineup and a winning attitude can go a long way for a team that won 53 games last season.
``We're just taking our time, and we're executing down the stretch,' Smith said.
The sharp-shooting Hawks can spread the floor and quickly make opponents pay if they're not back in transition or out on the perimeter, as the Timberwolves - whose defense is still in the research and development stage - were reminded. The Hawks had 20 fastbreak points in the first half, with zero for the Wolves.
Sebastian Telfair sank a couple of 3-pointers for the Wolves in the fourth quarter, the last one that cut the lead to 90-81. But right out of a timeout, Crawford drained a runner to stretch the Hawks advantage back to double digits. Brewer's uncontested fastbreak dunk brought the Wolves within 94-87, but Crawford came right back with a 3 on the other end.
``I watched Jamal Crawford do that since I was 14 years old,' Beasley said. ``That's what he do. He makes shots. He makes big shots.'
Saddled with a tough early schedule, with eight of their first 12 games on the road, the Timberwolves needed a pick-me-up after lopsided losses at Memphis, Miami and Orlando.
Coach Kurt Rambis, pleased by a spirited practice the day before, explained before the game the effort thusly, ``I don't know how you could be embarrassed.'
Wolves center Darko Milicic again struggled, finishing 2 for 7 from the floor for four points. Shooting was a problem for the entire frontcourt: Beasley and Kevin Love were a combined 12 for 36.
``I think we're all frustrated because we know we're better than this,' Love said. ``Individually and as a team, we're a lot better than this. Coaching staff, we're a lot better than this.'
Milicic gave himself another harsh self-critique, too.
``Looking awful on the court on offense. Disgusts myself,' Milicic said.
Notes: The Hawks were without small forwards Maurice Evans and Marvin Williams, both with knee injuries. Williams will miss at least a week, Drew said, before his bone bruise is re-evaluted. ... The Hawks won their ninth straight against the Wolves, who last won in this series on April 9, 2006, a 1-point victory at home. ... Rambis said Ridnour is dealing with an aggravated hamstring, but said he was on the bench in the fourth because Telfair was playing well.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved