ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Hawks spent the past month doing little more than warming up for the playoffs.
Now it’s time to get real again.
After setting a franchise record for wins and claiming the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, the Hawks host Brooklyn on Sunday to open the playoffs.
Atlanta (60-22) goes in as an overwhelming favorite against the Nets (38-44), a team that slipped into the playoffs on the final day and lost to the Hawks all four times during the regular season — only one of those games closer than 11 points.
Still, there were some troubling signs for Atlanta down the stretch.
After being relatively healthy much of season, the Hawks sustained a rash of nagging injuries. All-Stars Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver were among those affected, as well as top reserves Mike Scott and Dennis Schroder.
More troubling, two players were arrested in New York during a bizarre incident that left backup forward Thabo Sefolosha with a season-ending leg injury, costing the team one of its best perimeter defenders.
The Hawks won just seven of their last 15 games, including a pair of three-game losing streaks that were their longest skids of the season.
“We’re not a great team yet,” forward DeMarre Carroll conceded. “We’re just a good team.”
Former NBA star Charles Barkley, now an analyst for Turner Sports, wonders if the Hawks will be able to recapture the form that led to a perfect January and a 19-game winning streak. It was a run that separated them from the rest of the East and left the team with little to play for in the closing weeks.
Coach Mike Budenholzer took advantage of the team’s big lead in the standings, going with a philosophy that worked so well while he was an assistant in San Antonio. He frequently rested his starters or limited their minutes, in hopes of keeping them fresh for the playoffs.
While playing for Phoenix, Barkley remembers the Suns doing the same thing toward the end of the 1993 season after they locked up the best record in the league. They lost five of their last eight regular-season games — and were nearly upset in the opening round of the playoffs by the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Lakers.
After losing the first two games at home, Phoenix rallied to win the best-of-five series, with the deciding game going to overtime. The Suns also had a tough time with San Antonio and Seattle before losing to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the finals.
“There is some concern with that,” Barkley said Thursday during a conference call. “There’s no doubt in my mind that if we had not taken the last week to 10 days off, we would not have lost the first two games at home to the Lakers.”
He doesn’t know if the Suns would have beaten Jordan’s Bulls under the best of circumstances, but it’s always made him wonder.
Budenholzer doesn’t seem too worked up about the Hawks losing their momentum, even when they dropped the last three regular-season games.
Two of those defeats were understandable.
The Hawks didn’t play any of their starters at Washington and went with the backups in the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s finale at Chicago, after the first-teamers pushed Atlanta to an 18-point lead. In between, there was an inexplicable home performance against the lowly New York Knicks, when the Hawks played every starter except the injured Millsap but still lost 112-108.
“We know we have to play better,” Budenholzer said. “But there’s enough time to see what we have to do. In some ways, it’s good to learn from what you can’t do. We’re not concerned.”
In a promising development for the Hawks, Millsap returned for the finale after missing five games with a sprained shoulder. He made only 2 of 9 shots in 27 minutes, but was glad to get in a tuneup before the playoffs.
“I felt good,” Millsap said. “Just regular wear and tear. A few times when I got hit, (there was) a little pain, but that’s going to be there.”
Now, it’s time to play some games that really matter.
“We’re pretty confident,” Millsap said. “We feel like we can really do something. It’s up to us going out there and proving it.”
AP Sports Writer Andrew Seligman in Chicago contributed to this report.
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