ATLANTA -- Joe Johnson bounced back from a sluggish start to turn in his usual game at the offensive end.
Then he came up with a huge defensive play that carried the Atlanta Hawks to another victory.
Johnson scored 24 points and surprised Portland by stealing the ball with just over a minute remaining, leading the Hawks to their fourth straight win since losing All-Star center Al Horford, 92-89 over the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday night.
The Hawks, taking over first place in the Southeast Division from Orlando, closed the third period on a 14-0 run, but the Trail Blazers responded with a 13-0 spurt starting the fourth to tie the game. It was tight the rest of the way. In the end, Atlanta pulled out another gutsy win, having won its last three by a total of 14 points.
"I think when Al went out, it just brought us tighter," Jeff Teague said.
Atlanta was up 84-80 when a wild sequence went the home team's way. Jamal Crawford missed on a drive, but Wesley Matthews picked off an outlet pass to apparently give the Blazers another chance. Not so fast. Johnson hustled up behind Matthews to steal it back, then lobbed to Teague for a dunk with 1:25 remaining.
"I don't know if he thought I wasn't going to try to get back into the play, but his awareness of me coming from behind -- well, he didn't have any," Johnson said. "I just snuck up and was able to tap it. I didn't want to tap it forward where they could still get it. I kind of wanted to hit it where I could get it. I did. And I had Jeff Teague running down the wing. I know he can fly, so I just threw it up there and he went and got it."
Crawford, who led the Blazers with 22 points in his return to Atlanta, hit a last-gasp 3-pointer but the Hawks held on.
"Right now, it seems like we're playing harder when we get down instead of playing that way from the beginning of the game," Crawford said. "That makes it tougher on us to come back and pull out games."
Atlanta hasn't folded since Horford went down last week with a torn pectoral muscle, which will keep him out for most, if not the rest, of the regular season. He underwent surgery Tuesday and managed to get off a tweet congratulating his teammates: "Another solid win. Let's keep getting better. Go Hawks!"
Johnson missed his first five shots and was still scoreless with less than three minutes to go in the first half. Then, suddenly, he ripped off three straight jumpers -- including a pair of 3s -- and knocked down a couple of free throws. The 10-point outburst sparked a 12-4 spurt that pushed the Hawks to a double-digit lead.
Atlanta led 51-42 at the break.
"That's all it takes. Just see a couple go in the basket," Johnson said, breaking into a slight smile.
Portland seized the momentum coming out of the locker room, surging into the lead for the first time since late in the opening quarter. Gerald Wallace made a short hook with 4:07 to play in the third, putting the Blazers up 62-61. They didn't score again in the quarter, the Hawks racing to a 75-62 lead.
But the see-saw game suddenly turned Portland's way again. Crawford led the comeback in a role that must've looked familiar to Atlanta fans who cheered him the last two years when he played for the Hawks, winning the Sixth Man Award in 2010. He's filling the same role for the Blazers, but couldn't hit quite enough of his 22 shots to beat his old team.
"I knew he was coming," Atlanta's Josh Smith said. "He's an emotional player. He probably still wants to be here. It would be nice to still see him in a Hawks uniform, but this is a business."
At one point, Crawford glanced over to watch Hawks coach Larry Drew calling a play, trying to get a defensive edge. The Blazers guard could've used more help from his teammates. LaMarcus Aldridge added 20 points, but only four of those came in the final quarter, helping send the Blazers to their fourth loss in the last five games after a 7-2 start.
"I couldn't get my shot off," Aldridge said. "I definitely didn't play big down the stretch. We've got to figure this out before things get bad."
The Hawks were more balanced. Smith had 17 points, plus 11 rebounds, while Teague chipped in with 13 points and Marvin Williams added 12. All five players off the Atlanta bench also made the scoresheet.
The Hawks have won six straight over the Trail Blazers, whose last win against Atlanta came on Feb. 20, 2009
Portland's Nicolas Batum was taken to a hospital at halftime after being accidentally poked in his left eye by Tracy McGrady. Batum was back with the team afterward but seeing double. He'll be checked again in three days. ... Trevor Bayne, last year's surprise winner of the Daytona 500, attended his first NBA game. Asked his expectations for the season-opening NASCAR race, about a month away, he said, "We have to win it again, right? Expectations are high. We've got to live up to them." ... The Trail Blazers went without Marcus Camby, who missed his third straight game with a sprained left ankle). Coach Nate McMillan said before the game that Camby would only play in an emergency. ... Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn sat courtside at Philips Arena. The actors are in Atlanta filming the movie "Neighborhood Watch."
No one thought the Portland Trail Blazers would make it to the playoffs, much less the conference semifinals. That's perfectly fine for the upstart attitudes of Damian Lillard and Co.