ATLANTA - The pundits have dismissed the Atlanta Hawks as an early-season fluke, a team not nearly as good as its record.
But all the Hawks do is keep winning. They handed the Charlotte Hornets their worst loss of the season Saturday night, 98-80, to improve to an NBA-best 13-2.
Steve Smith returned from a three-game absence and scored 23 points, showing no ill effects from a back injury. Christian Laettner had 20, and Dikembe Mutombo added 10 points and 14 rebounds. The matchup drew a Georgia Dome sellout crowd of 21,938.
"Steve helped us," Hawks' coach Lenny Wilkens said. "The offense has so much more rhythm with him. We really move the ball because Steve knows everybody. He knows the offense inside and out. If you move, he'll find you. So having him back takes some of the pressure off the other guys."
One of the league's hottest offensive teams coming in, Charlotte shot only 34 percent and had double-figure scoring from only one player, forward Glen Rice, with 19. The Hornets only made two of 11 free throws and were outrebounded 45-39.
Charlotte's top shooters - Rice, Anthony Mason, Bobby Phills, David Wesley and Dell Curry - were a combined 15 of 50.
"I wanted to challenge them because they're good shooters," Wilkens said. "Glen Rice comes off the screen, what's he going to do? Del Curry comes off the screen, what's he going to do? I wanted to make sure we stayed right up on the guys and didn't let them get any open looks.
"If you let a shooter get rhythm, no matter what, he's going to make shots.
The 13-2 start is the second best in Hawks' franchise history. They were 14-1 on the way to a 16-1 start while in St. Louis in 1967-68.
Although eight of the wins have come against teams with losing records, the Hawks also have beaten the champion Chicago Bulls, Seattle SuperSonics, Detroit Pistons, Cleveland Cavaliers and now the Hornets.
The success is surprising to many, considering most analysts picked the Hawks to finish no higher than third or fourth in the Central Division.
"I don't know why people should not take us seriously," Mutombo said. "We won 56 games last year, and I don't know what we did wrong to be rated that low.
"They said we didn't go after the (big) free agents, but we had a nice draft. Ed Gray has given us a nice offensive game. Now, maybe those people who grade the teams need to go back to their computers and figure out what went wrong. Maybe their blue chips were messed up."
Charlotte is picked to build on last year's franchise-best mark of 54-28 and finish ahead of Atlanta in the division. The Hornets added to their team by acquiring free agent guards Wesley and Phills and trading for guard B.J. Armstrong.
The Hawks face a tough team again tonight at the Georgia Dome in San Antonio. The Spurs are led by center David Robinson, who is second in the NBA in scoring at 24.7 points per game, and they also have league's top rookie, former Wake Forest star Tim Duncan.
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