The return of Al Horford -- the center with the model good looks but the game of a grimy ogre -- couldn't have come at a better time for the Hawks. After a 6-10 January and the sudden loss of captain and All-Star Joe Johnson to a viral infection, the Hawks needed a dose of good news.And it came in the form of Horford, who returned to the practice floor Monday for the first time in more than three weeks.
"It's definitely a big boost to have him coming back," Josh Smith said. "We've missed his toughness."
Horford went through an entire practice for the first time since suffering his injury during the second half of a Jan. 9 loss in Orlando. So a little bit of rust was to be expected. Hardly any was detected.
"He looked good to me," Marvin Williams said, "real good. It was definitely good to see him back out there."
Horford was back in the starting lineup for Wednesday's game against Minnesota, a welcome sight for Hawks fans everywhere. But they couldn't have been any happier to get back into the mix than Horford was.
"I felt good," Horford said. "I felt really good. What I was concerned about was playing against contact. And I was fine. I think (Hawks assistant coach for player performance) Pete (Radulovic) and (head athletic trainer) Wally (Blase) did a great job of getting me back healthy, so I'm happy."
While it's a bit much to assume a player that averages a modest 10.8 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.6 blocks could leave that big a hole, Hawks coach Mike Woodson insists that Horford's absence is one the Hawks feel as much or more than any other.
"I don't think you can bring him back and play him big minutes," Woodson said. "You've got to ease him back in. And most players like him, they don't like that. It's what we have to do. We can't afford to rush him back and risk anything else going wrong.
"But with him being out, you miss all the little things he does. He sets screens. He plugs it up defensively. He's our best rebounder, the loose balls he always comes up with, the big blocks. He can do it all. We just can't rush it."
HAWKS 94, TIMBERWOLVES 86: There have been prettier wins this season for the Hawks. But who's worried about aesthetics these days?
Certainly not the Hawks, who had to sneak out of Target Center with a 94-86 win over the Timberwolves Wednesday night.
They won without captain, All-Star and leading scorer Joe Johnson, who was back at home nursing a nasty viral infection. And they snapped a three-game road losing streak, winning away from Philips Arena for the first time since a 105-102 win Jan. 20 in Chicago.
They also won with Al Horford in the lineup for the first time in more than three weeks. Horford missed 12 games with a bone bruise in his right knee but started Wednesday night.
So it wasn't pretty. The Hawks needed a Mike Bibby three-pointer with 44.2 seconds to play to finally squash a late Timberwolves' rally.
That won't be as big a deal today. Because when a team is as desperate to shake out a slump as the Hawks are, the aesthetics don't always matter.
They improved to 28-20 with the win, and secured their 10th road win of the season, finally joining the other seven teams in the playoff hunt with a double digit figure in the win column.