Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images
Mike Bibby scored 30 points to lead the Hawks past the Bulls on Friday.
Atlanta 106, Chicago 103
ATLANTA, March 28 (AP) -- Al Horford bowed down in the center of the court, as relieved as he was pleased.
The Atlanta Hawks nearly let one slip away Friday night, but their playoff hopes got a major boost when Ben Gordon's fourth-quarter barrage came up just short.
Mike Bibby scored 30 points and the Atlanta Hawks held on after nearly blowing two huge leads, beating the Chicago Bulls 106-103 to strengthen their hold on the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot.
Gordon, who scored 16 of his 18 points in the final period, had a chance to force overtime but his final shot rimmed out as the horn sounded.
"Man, my stomach was turning,'' Atlanta's Josh Smith said. "I was praying he missed it. Fortunately, he did.''
The Hawks were up 31-12 before some late-arriving fans had even settled in their seats, and they appeared headed for a laugher when Horford's dunk made it 72-50 with 7 minutes left in the third quarter.
Not so fast. Led by Gordon, the Bulls twice closed within a point in the final minutes. But the Hawks never relinquished the lead.
"We showed our growth and maturity,'' Smith said. "We knew we're playing for something important.''
Atlanta won for the sixth time in eight games and made up for a 103-94 loss at Chicago on Tuesday. The Hawks, trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 1999, pushed their lead on New Jersey to 1 1/2 games for the eighth spot in the East. The Nets lost at Indiana 123-115.
"It would have been tough if we had lost, especially after we found out New Jersey had lost. We could see their score up top'' on the out-of-town scoreboard, Smith said. "We understood it was real big to win this game.''
The loss was a devastating blow to Chicago's playoff hopes. The Bulls have lost four of five and dropped four games behind the Hawks with only 10 remaining.
"Every loss is tough, especially when you kind of feel like you have a chance to win and don't get it,'' Gordon said. "This is one of our tougher losses.''
Bibby scored 18 in the first half and finished 6 of 8 from beyond the arc.
"The leadership of a guy like Mike Bibby is big,'' Joe Johnson said. "Since he's been here, he's taken control of the game.''
Johnson scored 19 points for the Hawks, including a towering shot from the baseline over two defenders to make it 101-98 with 1:32 remaining. After Andres Nocioni missed a 3 for the tie, Horford hit a couple of free throws to stretch the lead to five.
Gordon threw the ball away after getting doubled near midcourt, but the Hawks couldn't hit the clincher.
Back to Gordon, who sank another 3 - his fourth of the final period - to give the Bulls hope. Atlanta's lead was a tenuous 104-101 after Johnson made one of two free throws with 17.7 seconds left.
The Bulls wanted to go to Gordon, of course, but he couldn't shake a double team. So, he dumped it underneath to an open Aaron Gray for the dunk.
Horford broke free on the inbounds and went the other way for a slam of his own.
The Bulls got one more chance, but Gordon missed.
"It felt good,'' he said. "It kind of rolled around the rim a little bit but rolled right out. It was a good comeback by us, but we need that kind of effort early in the game.''
All five Atlanta starters scored in double figures, with Marvin Williams and Smith both contributing double-doubles. Williams had 13 points and 11 rebounds, while Smith went for 12 and 10.
Luol Deng scored 19 points to lead the Bulls, who got points from all 11 players who saw minutes but were beaten on the boards. The Hawks outrebounded Chicago 46-36.
"They started making the tough shots,'' Johnson said. "But late in the fourth, we locked down and got some big stops.''
Notes: A pesky spot of dampness developed near the Hawks bench in the first quarter, which led to a funny exchange. A worker had been furiously mopping the area and froze there when Atlanta set up to make an inbounds pass. "I'm going to let you get out of the way,'' referee Monty McCutchen told the worker, "though that would give you some excellent air time.'' ... The teams split their four regular-season meetings. ... Former Florida teammates Horford and Joakim Noah spent time guarding each other. Horford outscored Noah 16-6.