Al Horford said he switched into that extra gear when challenged down 17 at halftime. Joe Johnson saw the fire in Horford's eyes when he drained a rare 3-pointer midway through the third. Marvin Williams said that Horford wanted it the second he took the court -- former Florida Gators teammate Joakim Noah was on the other side of the ball and all. Horford simply had to respond with a big game.
Whatever it was, Atlanta Hawks fans are just grateful that their All-Star center carried the team on his back, helped them overcome a 19-point deficit and willed them over the finish line.
Horford scored 22 of his career high-tying 31 points, including an emphatic dunk to give Atlanta its first lead with 29.4 seconds left in the Hawks' improbable 83-80 win over the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday night at Philips Arena.
Joe Johnson had a miserable shooting night, but ratcheted up the defense and helped force a crucial turnover down the stretch for Atlanta, which rallied back from a 19 point deficit to beat the Bulls for the sixth straight time.
"(Horford) was an absolute beast tonight," Hawks coach Larry Drew said. "He just did it on both ends. ... He was our anchor tonight. During timeouts, he was in the huddles cheering the guys and just telling the guys to keep plugging. he was phenomenal tonight."
Atlanta could have easily rolled over in this one. They started the game down 14-0. They were without Josh Smith, who was out while getting an MRI on his injured right knee. They lacked size on a Chicago team that can control the boards and dominate a basketball game.
But in the end, the Bulls couldn't overcome the heart of a champion who knew that he had to step his game up a notch in his teammate's absence.
"I just knew I that I needed to play harder since Josh was out," said Horford, who also had 16 boards. "He's a big part of our team. I just tried to come out and be aggressive and kind of get the guys going."
Horford helped Atlanta cut a 17 point halftime deficit down to five with a sensational third quarter where he scored as many points (13) as the Bulls did in the frame. And when the game was on the line down the stretch, the two-time National Champion Gator showed exactly why he may be ready to move into that elite class of players in the NBA.
"We came in at half time and coach told us that we don't care about the score," Horford said. "It's about heart and playing hard. I took to heart what he told us. We came out with more intensity in the second half."
After Noah split a pair of free throws with 37.1 seconds left to post the Bulls to an 80-79 lead, Horford took advantage of the pick-and-roll, got free in the paint and jammed it home to finally give Atlanta the lead.
Johnson pressured the inbound pass on Chicago's ensuing possession. The ball went off the hands of Derrick Rose and found Horford, who passed it to Johnson.
Usually, Atlanta's other All-Star would post up for the easy layup. Not this time. Johnson took it to the rim for another emphatic jam as the crowd of 16,928 at the Highlight Factory was whipped into a frenzy.
"March Madness has begun," Hawks forward Marvin Williams said. "It kicked off. We started down and the guys put it together."
Also back in the arena in was Smith. Drew said that he was whooping it up down the tunnel for Atlanta as his teammates brought home an improbable win. Although the team did not know the results of the MRI yet, they are hoping that J-Smoove will be getting back to basketball shortly.
Luol Deng had 15 points and Noah had 13 and 12 boards for Chicago, who had won seven of their last eight games.