ATLANTA — The Atlanta Hawks may have discovered the optimum time to get hot.
The Hawks, behind center Dwight Howard’s 53rd double-double, secured fifth place in the Eastern Conference with a 103-76 win over the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday.
Howard scored 19 points on 7-for-9 shooting and grabbed 12 rebounds as the Hawks extended their winning streak to four games.
“We’ve been here before,” Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer said. “We need to stay humble, stay edgy and remember why we’re playing better lately. Last four games it’s been a simple message — compete, stay together — and guys are doing that well.”
Howard was hard to stop in the first half. Guards Dennis Schroder, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kent Bazemore looked for him around the rim and Howard responded. Howard had three dunks — one on the first play of the game — and scored two times on offensive rebounds and putbacks.
“Just his physicality and his strength down there,” Charlotte coach Steve Clifford said. “I thought he was super active, had great readiness and he’s hard to get out of there. He was getting down early in possessions, getting in good position and they did a good job getting the ball to him.”
It was the first time in four tries that Atlanta defeated Charlotte, and the result guaranteed the Hawks (43-38) would finish fifth and open the playoffs against the fourth-place Washington Wizards (49-32). Atlanta holds the tiebreaker over the sixth-place Milwaukee Bucks (42-39) if the two teams wind up tied.
“Good performance,” Budenholzer said. “We wanted to come out and play good in our last home game. I was pleased with our defensive activity, our aggressiveness at times was really, really good, the ball movement … a lot of good stuff on both ends of the court.”
Atlanta also received 10 points and seven rebounds from Paul Millsap and 10 points from Ersan Ilyasova. The Hawks rested their regulars in the fourth quarter, but every active player scored.
Charlotte (36-46) was led by Jeremy Lamb, who came off the bench to score 21 points. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Briante Weber and Treveon Graham each scored 10. The Hornets finished the season by losing their final five games.
Atlanta grabbed the momentum in the first quarter by pounding the ball inside. Howard scored 10 points in the quarter before going to the locker room with 3:42 left for an unspecified reason. Howard returned when the second quarter began.
“When we broke the starting lineup, we don’t have a lot of offense on the floor and they took advantage of that,” Clifford said.
Atlanta shot 72 percent (13-for-18) from the field in the quarter and led 38-26.
“Scoring 38 in the first quarter, the rhythm and the people making shots, making plays, sharing it,” Budenholzer said. “When you come out and put up a big first quarter, it does a lot for your team.”
The Hawks continued their hot shooting in the second quarter and wound up at 70.6 percent for the first half (24-for-34). They led by as many as 21 points on three different occasions and had a 63-44 advantage at halftime, thanks to Howard’s 13 points. Lamb came off the bench to score 10, including a windmill dunk following a steal.
Atlanta pushed its lead to as many as 29 points in the third quarter. The Hornets used a 9-0 run to close to within 77-57 and got as close as 19 before Atlanta regained control and took an 84-61 lead into the fourth quarter.
The Hornets finished 12 games worse than a year ago and missed the playoffs for the second time in Clifford’s four-year tenure.
“It was a disappointing year,” he said. “We have improved offensively really well, but defensively — which has been our hallmark — we haven’t been there. That part is disappointing. That’s what this league is about. You want to be playing your best this time of year and we didn’t.”
NOTES: Atlanta G Thabo Sefolosha entered the game in the second quarter. He missed the previous eight games with a right groin strain. … Charlotte G Marco Belinelli missed his third straight game with a left finger strain, and F Kemba Walker missed his second straight contest with a left knee injury. Walker finished the season with 1,830 points, the second most in franchise history. … Atlanta F Paul Millsap was awarded the Jason Collier Memorial Trophy in a pregame ceremony. The award, named in honor of the late Atlanta center who died in 2005, is given to the player who acts as a community ambassador off the court. … Charlotte’s season is over. Atlanta finishes the regular season with a game at Indiana on Wednesday.