The Atlanta Hawks know Al Horford can rebound, as the third overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft was the leader in that category among rookies last season.They're starting to see what he's capable of offensively as well.
Horford has topped 20 points in consecutive games for the first time in his career, a feat he may be hard-pressed to repeat Sunday night when the Hawks host the Cleveland Cavaliers, the league's stingiest defensive team.
Horford pulled down 9.7 rebounds per game last season - no other rookie averaged more than 6.4 - yet finished second to Kevin Durant in the rookie of the year voting. Horford, who scored 10.1 points per game in 2007-08, has shown little offensive improvement in his second season, raising his average by less than a point.
Lately, however, Horford seems to be figuring out how to become a consistent scorer. He had 21 points on Wednesday as Atlanta (33-25) closed its six-game road trip with a tough 110-109 loss at Denver.
He was even more of a force on Friday.
Facing Miami, the Hawks' closest pursuer in the race for the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference, Horford again scored 21 and grabbed a career-high 22 rebounds in a 91-83 win.
"I realized I had to be a little more aggressive on offense," said Horford, who shot 8-of-14. "I think I've been coasting a little bit, but the Denver game got me going, and I think today I told myself that I can make the outside shots."
Atlanta has its share of scorers - Joe Johnson, Mike Bibby, Josh Smith and Marvin Williams average 66.1 points - but it's a better team when Horford is contributing offensively. The Hawks are 8-1 when he scores 15 or more points.
"We went to him and utilized him more, and coming down the stretch, that's something that we are going to have to continue to do," coach Mike Woodson said.
Horford's offensive contribution Friday was even more crucial considering Bibby's been battling the flu. The Hawks' point guard went scoreless in 15 minutes in a loss at Utah on Monday, sat out the loss to Denver, then played nearly 19 minutes without scoring versus Miami.
Bibby, though, didn't have any problems scoring when Cleveland (45-12) visited Atlanta on Dec. 13. He had a team-high 24 points as the Hawks snapped the Cavaliers' 11-game win streak with a 97-92 victory.
LeBron James had 33 points and nine assists in that loss, but the NBA's reigning scoring champion played one of his worst games Thursday at Houston. James was held to 21 points while failing to record an assist for the first time in his career as Cleveland began a stretch of four road games in five nights with an ugly 93-74 loss.
James and the Cavaliers didn't waste time bouncing back. He had 30 points, 14 rebounds and four assists Friday at San Antonio, sitting out the fourth quarter as Cleveland cruised to a 97-86 victory.
"That's the best thing about the NBA," James said. "You can play as bad as you ever played one night and the NBA schedule allows you to make up for it the next night."
The Cavaliers, who allow 90.5 points per game, could use a big game from Zydrunas Ilgauskas inside against Horford. The 7-foot-3 center had 17 points in Cleveland's 110-96 victory over the Hawks on Nov. 22, but sat out the loss in December with a sprained ankle.
Horford has averaged 12.0 points and 8.5 boards against the Cavaliers this season.