For one night, at least, the Atlanta Hawks looked like the team that made a stunning run to the Eastern Conference final last summer.
Trae Young bounced back from a sluggish start to score 24 points and De’Andre Hunter led a third-quarter surge Wednesday that carried the Hawks to a 132-103 rout of the Charlotte Hornets in a play-in game.
“We’re definitely confident right now,” Hunter said. “But we’ve got a lot more work to do. We’re not satisfied yet.”
The Hawks were a bit of a disappointment during the regular season, finishing ninth in the East after their surprising playoff success in 2021.
They’ve still got to win one more play-in game just to make the playoffs, heading to Cleveland to face the Cavaliers on Friday night. The winner claims the No. 8 seed in the East and will face the top-seeded Miami Heat in the opening round of the playoffs.
The season is over for the Hornets, who were overwhelmed in the 9-10 play-in game for the second year in a row and haven’t made the playoffs since 2016.
Still, coach James Borrego called it another step forward for a rebuilding team.
“A lot of good things have happened for this franchise based on where we’re at today compared to where we were two or three years ago,” he said.
Miles Bridges was ejected in the fourth quarter and could be facing additional punishment from the league office after he appeared to strike a young fan with his mouthpiece.
All five Atlanta starters scored in double figures, as did Bogdan Bogdanovic off the bench. It was Hunter who came up big in the decisive third period, bursting out with 16 points after being held to 3 in the first half.
“I think I’m a big part of this team,” Hunter said. ”Me being aggressive, scoring and defending, helps this team a lot.”
The Hornets closed the regular season strong and felt like they had a good chance to win a couple of play-in games on the road. But those hopes came crashing down against their I-85 rival.
LaMelo Ball led Charlotte with 26 points on 7-of-25 shooting.
The Hawks led by 13 in the first half before settling for a 60-52 advantage at the break. Charlotte had a bit of momentum in the closing minutes of the half, but it sure didn’t carry over to the third.
The Hawks outscored the Hornets 42-24 during that 12-minute barrage, hitting 16 of 24 shots, and led 102-76 heading to the final period.
With the Hornets doubling at every opportunity, Young made only 1 of 9 shots in the opening quarter and 3 of 13 in the first half.
But his teammates found plenty of open looks and made the Hornets pay dearly.
“It’s great for my team,’” said Young, who had 11 assists. “If you can make two guys guard you, it only opens up the floor for everybody else. I have to embrace it.”
Charlotte should’ve known what kind of night it would be on their way to State Farm Arena.
The Hornets’ chartered bus was blocked by a freight train that stopped on a crossing near the downtown sports complex. The bus had to turn around and take a different route to the arena, delaying Charlotte’s arrival for pregame warmups.
It didn’t get much better once the game tipped off.
The Hornets’ frustration boiled over with about 6 1/2 minutes to go when Bridges complained so vehemently about a goaltending call that he picked up two quick technicals and was ejected.
Then, with a Hawks fan yapping at him on the way to the locker room, the Hornets player wildly threw his mouthpiece and appeared to strike a female who was simply watching the scene.
Bridges went on Twitter shortly after the game looking to make amends.
“Somebody get me in contact with the young lady,” he said. “That’s unacceptable.”
Bridges said he’ll accept whatever punishment he gets from the league.
“I was upset about a call, a couple of calls really,” he said. “I let my temper get the best of me. It was definitely the wrong thing to do.”
The Hawks were in a play-in game for the first time, but Hunter knows something about the one-and-done feel of the format.
During his college career at Virginia, he helped lead the Cavaliers to the national championship in 2019.
“It’s like the NCAA Tournament,” Hunter said. “I’m not sure how feel about it. We won, so I guess I like it. But I’m not sure. It’s tough.”
Hornets: Terry Rozier had 21 points. …. As a team, Charlotte shot 37.8% (37 of 90) from the field.
Hawks: F John Collins (sprained foot, sprained finger) has stepped up workouts but still wasn’t able to play. His hasn’t been in a game since March 11. … G Lou Williams also was inactive with lower back discomfort. … Capela had 17 rebounds, leading the Hawks to a 54-41 edge on the boards.
The Hawks went 3-1 against the Cavaliers during the regular season, splitting the two games in Cleveland.