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Hawks begin long road trip already tuning up for playoffs

ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Hawks headed west on their longest road trip of the season with really just one goal left to accomplish during the regular season: Be at their best when the playoffs begin.

After becoming the first NBA team to reach 50 wins (a few hours ahead of Golden State), the Hawks left Tuesday on a six-game sojourn that includes a rematch with the Warriors next week.

While Atlanta would love to finish with the best overall record in the league — they are a half-game behind the Warriors — coach Mike Budenholzer has made it clear that is a very low priority, with the only tangible benefit being home-court advantage in the NBA Finals, should the Hawks make it that far.

“We don’t care about a whole bunch of victories right now,” forward DeMarre Carroll said. “We’re worried about being better later.”

Budenholzer has been resting some of his key players, wanting to make sure they’re fresh for the playoffs, and even took the unusual step of leaving Kyle Korver at home for the last road game at Philadelphia in hopes that would help him break out of a shooting slump.

It sure paid off Monday night, as Korver hit 6 of 8 3-pointers, finished with 20 points, and sparked the Hawks to their highest-scoring game of the season in a 130-105 victory over Sacramento.

“Getting him to a good place is important,” Budenholzer said.

That philosophy applies to his whole team, which has dominated the East and is on the verge of checking off everything on its conference wish list.

Going into Tuesday’s games, the Hawks (50-13) had a 14 1-2 game lead over Washington in the Southeast and could lock up their first division title since 1994 in the next week or so. They had an 11-game lead over Cleveland for the best record in the conference, which means they could play under .500 the rest of the way and still be assured of home court through the first three rounds of the playoffs. Atlanta is only eight wins away from its best record ever.

Already, the Hawks reached 50 wins faster than any team in franchise history, an accomplishment that was greeted with a collective “we’ve got bigger goals” from everybody in the locker room.

“We’ve worked hard this year,” All-Star forward Paul Millsap said. “But the job is not done.”

The Hawks open their road trip Wednesday night against Denver, followed by games against Phoenix, the Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento, Golden State and Oklahoma City. There’s one back-to-back in that stretch — the Lakers on Sunday, followed by the Kings the following night — so that’s a logical point for Budenholzer to split up some rest for his starters.

Thabo Sefolosha, a key player off the bench, hopes to return on the road trip after missing 15 games with a strained right calf. Backup center Pero Antic is also ailing, sitting out the last two games with a sprained left ankle. But there’s plenty of time to make sure they’re both at full strength for the playoffs.

Carroll, who made the trip to Philadelphia last weekend but was among three starters who sat out the game, noticed a difference in how he felt after the break. He made 4 of 6 3-pointers against the Kings and scored all of his 20 points in the first half.

“My legs felt good,” he said. “We were shooting the ball really well and playing with a lot of energy. I’m pretty sure the rest helped us.”

While the Hawks took advantage of one of the league’s weakest defensive teams, it was just how they want to script out things at the offensive end. By hitting from beyond the arc, they opened up plenty of easy shots on the inside. They shot 60 percent from the field and finished with a staggering 42 assists, the best in the NBA this season and the most by Atlanta since 1993.

“We talk a lot about ball movement, people movement,” Budenholzer said. “There was a crispness to our offense that allowed us to get into a good place.”

Sacramento coach George Karl was certainly impressed.

“You’re seeing a very special basketball team,” he said. “I’m a big fan of who they are. Atlanta never has a ‘me’ shot. It’s always a ‘we’ shot.”

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AP freelance writer Amy Jinkner-Lloyd contributed to this report.

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