ATLANTA ( exclusive) --  The Atlanta Hawks did what they were supposed to do Saturday night in proving that they're on track to take the next step.

Having finished No. 4 in the Eastern Conference last season, having advanced to the second round of the playoffs, having ended a seven-game losing streak to the bully Boston Celtics on Friday night, they on Saturday lit into the latter half of a back-to-back sequence by lighting up an inferior team.

A 121-98 win over the visiting New Orleans Hornets was not poignant in and of itself. The Hornets fired their coach this week, lost All-Star point guard Chris Paul to an ankle sprain Friday, and were grossly undermanned.

Yet the Hawks hardly toyed with the situation.

That gave the appearance of a big change in a game that helped -- in combination with the Celts' upset loss to Indiana on Saturday -- push Atlanta to the top of the Eastern Conference with an 8-2 record.

New Orleans made a brief and spirited run in the fourth quarter to pull to within six points in Philips Arena, but the Hawks responded.

That's the key: they responded -- and throughout.

"Two years ago for sure, maybe even last year, we might have lost that game right there," said forward Marvin Williams, whose 2-for-10 shooting night was overcome by teammates who made 46 of 78 shots (59 percent).

"That's was a huge win for us [Friday] night in Boston, and coming in playing against a team without their superstar, we kind of would have taken it easy a couple years ago."

Not Saturday night.

The Hawks blew out to a 37-28 lead by the end of the first quarter, but for a couple fits and starts, they kept their collective boot on the Hornets' throats from there.

All-Star guard Joe Johnson scored 26 points with seven assists, and forward Josh Smith continued his monstrous autumn with 17 points and 17 rebounds. Johnson scored 13 in the first quarter alone.

The Hornets rode a 12-4 scoring blitz to start the fourth quarter to pull within 95-89 on Peja Stojakovic's 3-pointer with 8:47 left.

Then, the Hawks took advantage of a timeout to not only cool the Hornets who would finish with 25 points, but to re-align themselves.

New Orleans suddenly was hitting the boards, winning loose balls, and getting easy shots (including three lay-ups in that stretch).

So Atlanta coach Mike Woodson stuck with his starters.

That paid off with a 16-0 run, every point scored by a starter.

Smith scored nine points, grabbed six rebounds, registered two steals and pitched in three assists in the final quarter, and he left with 3:30 remaining in the game.

"He was all over the place in terms of rebounding the ball,"

Woodson said. Woodson was right; Smith had a special goal in mind.

"I made a conscious effort to go down there and help out Al [Horford, who had 14 points and a modest five rebounds], and not let him be the only one down there rebounding," he said.

Something seems different about the Hawks.

"Maybe three years ago we would have struggled in a game like this after winning such a big game against a great opponent, but we're a different team, man," Woodson said. "We're trying to prove something to ourselves as players and coaches, and this organization where we're going.

"You just got to tip your hat to the guys in the locker room because they're growing up."

There is a difference in these Hawks and those last year, and it goes beyond the addition of guard Jamal Crawford, who scored 21 points with four assists off the bench. Atlanta also out-scored New Orleans 70-48 in the paint.

"It's impressive how good they are defensively," said Hornets coach/general manager Jeff Bower. "They're playing some of the best basketball in the league right now. They continued to put pressure on us with their drives, and . . . attacking the paint."