Mase was a machine.
Anthony Mason scored 21 of his 29 points in the second half and the Charlotte Hornets, bouncing back from matching the NBA's lowest-scoring playoff game, eliminated the Atlanta Hawks in the first round with a 91-82 victory in Game 4 Friday night."Mase was awesome," said Charlotte coach Dave Cowens, whose team advanced to the second round for the second time in team history after winning the best-of-5 series 3-1.
Mason was a dominating force, especially in the fourth quarter, when he scored 13 points with powerful, unorthodox moves. With the game tied at 74, the 6-foot-8 forward scored on three straight trips down the floor, unbothered by the presence of Dikembe Mutombo in the middle of the lane.
"Me and him were both talking, but he sure came up big in the fourth quarter," conceded Steve Smith, who led the Hawks with 27 points but had only six in the final period. "You've got to give him the credit. He took the game on his shoulders."
It was reminiscent of Mason's performance in Game 2, when he scored 25 points in a 92-85 victory. He slipped past Mutombo for a layin, moved outside to hit a 13-foot baseline jumper, then spun and hit another 6-footer that gave the Hornets an 80-74 lead with 4:39 remaining.
Mason, who had sparked a minor controversy late in the regular season when he said the Hawks had "no heart," pumped his fist on the way back down the court. He went on to tie his season high for points, in addition to grabbing 14 rebounds.
Atlanta didn't get the margin below six points the rest of the way.
"What Mason did in the fourth quarter was take over the game," said Glen Rice, who added 26 points for the Hornets despite a sore thumb on his shooting hand. "If anybody can do that, Mason can."
It didn't hurt that Atlanta coach Lenny Wilkens inexplicably kept Alan Henderson on the bench for all but the final three minutes of the fourth quarter. His replacement, Christian Laettner, went 0-of-4 in the final period and was of no help trying to guard Mason.
"I was real surprised," Mason said. "I asked Christian Laettner why" Henderson was on the bench. "I was shocked he wasn't in the game down the stretch."
So was Henderson, who replaced Laettner in the starting lineup for the final 33 games of the season and was named the NBA's most improved player on Thursday.
"Maybe I could have slowed him (Mason) down, maybe not. But I would have liked to have been in there," Henderson said. "I want to play the first quarter and I want to play the fourth quarter. That's the kind of player I am. I want to be in there."
Wilkens defended his decision.
"He's just one guy," the coach said of Henderson. "We worked Christian Laettner in because he's ... a quality player. That's just a decision."
The Hornets meet Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the second round.
"We're ready for Chicago," Rice said. "We realize if we go out and play the way we're capable of playing, and be very competitive, our chances are real good."
Atlanta, which started the season with 11 straight victories, became only the third team to lose a playoff series to an opponent it swept during the regular season. Also, the Hawks were knocked out in the opening round for the first time since 1995.
"It was a crazy, up-and-down season," Mookie Blaylock said.
The Hornets, who shot only 34 percent and tied an NBA playoff record by scoring 64 points in a 32-point loss in Game 3, surpassed that miserable effort by the end of the third quarter.
Charlotte came to the Georgia Dome early to get in some extra shooting practice on Thursday. The move apparently worked - the Hornets hit 39-of-74 (53 percent) from the field - and Rice bounced back from an eight-point effort in Game 3.
The Hawks led by as many as 10 in the second quarter, the fourth straight game in the series in which they built a double-figure, first-half lead. But the Hornets didn't fold this time; instead, they bounced back like they did in winning the first two games at Charlotte.
Mason gave the Hornets a boost going to the locker room, driving in for a layup as the clock expired. Even though Atlanta led 41-35, there was a sense of doom from the home fans that the game was slipping away.
The Hornets pulled ahead for the first time since midway through the first period when David Wesley converted a three-point play with 4:57 remaining in the third, making it 55-53. Mason came through again at the end of the quarter, hitting a layup off Wesley's pass to put Charlotte up 66-64 going to the fourth.