NEW YORK (AP) — The Atlanta Hawks may never duplicate the way they played in January, during the best month in NBA history.
They at least begin May looking better than in April.
The 60-game winners and runaway No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference weren’t sharp when the playoffs started, mostly because they were so good during the regular season that they lost their edge once everything was clinched.
Being tied after four games of their first-round series brought out the best in the Hawks, and as they showed in delivering a devastating third-quarter knockout, their best was better than anyone else in the Eastern Conference this season.
Paul Millsap had 25 points, nine rebounds and six assists, and the Hawks finally finished off the Brooklyn Nets in six games, advancing to the East semifinals with a 111-87 victory Friday night.
Kyle Korver added 20 points and hit three of his six 3-pointers during a series-deciding run as the Hawks turned a six-point halftime lead into the only blowout of the series. They have a quick turnaround before facing Washington on Sunday in their second-round opener.
“We lost Game 4 and you never want that happen, but I think we were moving in the right direction (Games) 4, 5, 6,” coach Mike Budenholzer said.
“But at the end of the day you’ve got to get back to work and get prepared for Game 1. If you assume anything you’re in trouble, but I think this was great for us to play playoff basketball to compete like you have to in the playoffs.”
The Wizards, the No. 5 seed, swept Toronto in the first round.
The Hawks won the East so handily after building a big cushion with their 17-0 January — a first in NBA history — that they were able to give their starters plenty of rest down the stretch, though that contributed to some struggles when the playoffs started.
A Nets team they beat four times by an average of 17.3 points during the regular season kept the first two games close and won the next two. But Atlanta pulled away late in Game 5 and came out clicking Friday.
“We didn’t play that well the first three games. I didn’t think we had our edge,” Korver said. “I think coming here and losing two kind of woke of us.”
Atlanta won the final two games and left no doubt about this one after beginning the second half with a 23-3 blitz that made it 74-48, opening as big a gap on the scoreboard as there was between the teams in the standings. The Hawks were 60-22 in the regular season and the Nets were only 38-44 as the last team to qualify for the postseason, but Atlanta had outscored Brooklyn by just nine points through the first five games.
The Nets looked as if they would keep this one close after recovering from the Hawks’ strong start, but Atlanta wouldn’t let that happen.
Brook Lopez scored 19 points for the Nets, who had saved first-round elimination with Game 6 victories in each of the last two years. But a lethargic start to the third quarter ended any hopes of taking the series back to Atlanta on Sunday.
“We wanted to make the playoffs. We did, and we thought we put up a great effort against this team that’s the best in the East,” Nets guard Deron Williams said.
Hawks: Budenholzer finished third in voting for executive of the year, which was won Friday by Golden State general manager Bob Myers. Budenholzer, who won coach of the year, has overseen basketball operations since general manager Danny Ferry’s racially charged comments.
Nets: The Nets fell to 5-1 in Game 6 of first-round series. They beat Chicago in 2013 in a series they eventually lost, then topped Toronto last year before edging the Raptors in Game 7.
Carroll finished with 20 points, his fourth straight game with at least that many. He is the first Hawks player to do that since Jamal Crawford in 2011, and Hollins said he was the MVP of the series. “Oh man, that brings joy to me,” Carroll said. “He was my first coach in the NBA.”
IF AT FIRST
The team leading after the first quarter won all six games in the series. The Hawks had a 47-point advantage in their victories.
Follow Brian Mahoney on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/Briancmahoney
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.