Atlanta figures to battle Indiana for the Central Division title, and the Hawks struck the first blow Tuesday night with an 85-79 victory over the Pacers.
"Indiana is one of the teams in the league that has been playing great," said the Hawks' Dikembe Mutombo, who had 10 points and a season-high 20 rebounds. "This is a team we have to beat to win a championship and we wanted to send them a message that they have to battle to beat us. "
There were 17 ties and 14 lead changes, and neither team led by more than seven points. Steve Smith's two free throws with 7.9 seconds left gave Atlanta an 83-79 lead and the Hawks held on from there.
Atlanta's Alan Henderson returned to his home state and scored 19 points, hitting 8-of-11 shots from the field. However, he played only two minutes in the fourth quarter.
"Grant Long was playing great," Atlanta coach Lenny Wilkens said. "That's why we didn't change."
Added Henderson: "We really wanted to focus on coming out aggressively, just hit the boards on both ends. That allowed us to get out and get some breaks."
The victory was Atlanta's fourth straight and ended Indiana's four-game winning streak.
Chris Crawford put the Hawks ahead to stay at 71-69. The Pacers then went more than three minutes without scoring, while turning the ball over tree times.
Atlanta scored seven consecutive points, starting with Crawford's basket to lead 76-69. Rik Smits, who led the Pacers with 22 points, then scored Indiana's first field goal in over four minutes.
"We just didn't play tonight. We had too many guys who didn't show up," Indiana coach Larry Bird said. "We didn't get much help on the defensive end and offensively, we were struggling."
The Pacers nearly swiped the ball with 16 seconds to go on an inbounds pass near the Atlanta basket, but Long dived to the floor and grabbed the loose ball before calling a time out.
A free throw by Johnson made it 81-78 and when he missed the second shot, Antonio Davis got the rebound for Indiana. Miller was fouled by Smith with 12.6 seconds remaining before Indiana could get a 3-point attempt off. Miller missed his first attempt, but hit the second.
The Pacers got another chance when Mookie Blaylock missed two free throws for the Hawks, but Atlanta was awarded the ball after the officials ruled Indiana had knocked the ball out of bounds.
Smith then hit his two free throws and Blaylock closed out the scoring with two free throws with less than a second to play. Mutombo had 20 rebounds for the Hawks.
- Indiana's reserves began the second quarter missing their first 11 shots and the Pacers hit only 6-of-24 attempts in the period.
- Henderson attempted a career-high 10 free throws, but made only three.
- Crawford started his second straight game for Atlanta, filling in for LaPhonso Ellis, who went on the injured list with back spasms.
- The teams were playing the first of three games in a 13-day period.
- Smits hit his only two free throws, extending his streak to 24 straight.
- The game ended a six-game home stand for Indiana, which went 4-2.
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