Updated: March 14, 2007, 4:52 PM ET

Look who's contending now

ATLANTA -- A few weeks ago, it seemed the only two people who would care about Tuesday's Hawks-Sixers game were Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. But lo and behold, Tuesday's night's matchup had playoff implications after the rest of the East's so-called playoff contenders kept losing while the Sixers and Hawks won 10 straight between them.

Unfortunately, only one of the teams showed up for Atlanta's 104-92 romp. Sixers coach Mo Cheeks spent the pregame media session talking about how Philadelphia's increased offensive aggressiveness had fueled their seven-game winning streak. Then, his team went out and inadvertently proved his point.

"We've made a concerted effort to try to get to the foul line and get into the penalty early," said Cheeks prior to the game. "It's something we've been really concentrating on."

But after a seven-game stretch in which his team took 25.4 free-throw attempts per contest, Philadelphia kept settling for jumpers Tuesday. The Sixers took only one free throw in the first quarter, quickly fell behind by double figures and watched the Hawks race out to a 29-point lead en route to the streak-ending defeat.

While Philadelphia ended up with 24 free-throw attempts on the night, close to its average, many of them came in a late surge by the second unit long after the outcome had been decided.

Instead, it was the Hawks who seemed to be making the extra effort to reach the stripe. The Hawks got 25 free-throw attempts in the first three quarters, fueled by a massive effort on the offensive glass. Forward Josh Smith -- not always known for dialing it up in the aggression department -- overwhelmed the Sixers with his spirited forays to the boards, grabbing six offensive rebounds in the first half alone and having a double-double by the break. Overall, the Hawks had 17 offensive rebounds, nearly matching Philly's total on the defensive glass (22).

"I thought our concentration level tonight was as good as it's been, from beginning to end, as it [has been] all season, especially Josh Smith," said Hawks coach Mike Woodson. "He's growing up. He, [Marvin Williams] and [Josh Childress] have come a long way."

Smith finished with a monstrous night -- 26 points, 17 rebounds, five assists, four steals and three blocks -- to continue a torrid stretch over the past two weeks. He's now put up career highs in points and rebounds in consecutive games, and in seven March games he's averaging 21.6 points, 9.0 boards and 3.3 blocks while shooting 52.9 percent.

"I'm just focusing in a little bit more," Smith said. "I understand that all of us have to step up." (The injured Joe Johnson is out of the lineup.)

As a result, Atlanta's fourth straight victory sans their lone All-Star pulls the Hawks within four games of the New York Knicks, New Jersey Nets and Indiana Pacers for the last two playoff spots in the East, and three behind 10th-place Orlando. With upcoming games against Boston, Indiana and Sacramento, the Hawks could make up more ground in the near future.

Realistically, they'll need to, because Atlanta's playoff odds remain long. If two of the three teams the Hawks are chasing go a game under .500 the rest of the way (i.e., 8-9 for New Jersey or 9-10 for New York and Indiana), then 38 wins is the Hawks' target.

To hit it, Atlanta would have to go 12-5 in its final 17 games … which, counting the past four games, would be 16-5 in the final 21 … which would be coming from a franchise that has had one winning month in the Mike Woodson era, and an 8-7 month littered with home games at that … and is playing without their best player … and would come in a stretch when two of the remaining dates say "Miami" and one says "Dallas."

But in a season in which the contenders for the East's final playoff spots come in two varieties -- lame and lamer -- don't count out the Hawks (or the Sixers, for that matter) just yet. For instance, suppose three of the four teams Atlanta is chasing crap out and go 6-11 or worse the rest of the way -- hardly an impossibility given that Indiana just lost its 10th straight game, Orlando is in a free-fall and two of the Knicks' best players are injured. In that case, Atlanta's magic number becomes 36 wins and the Hawks need to go only 10-7 down the stretch, a much more reasonable goal.

In the end, the big victory from Tuesday night might be that we're mentioning the "p" word at all. The Hawks came into the season with low expectations and every rotation player has missed time with injuries, yet with a month to go in the season the focus isn't on Oden or Durant but on how they can make the postseason. For fans who have suffered through one of basketball's most painful rebuilding jobs, there's finally a tiny morsel of light at the end of the tunnel.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.

• Dimes Past: March 1 | 2 | 3-4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10-11 | 12 | 13


Gaucho Marks: 13 Straight
Josh Howard
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images
The South American Spurs, Manu Ginobili and Fabricio Oberto, take a break during a 93-84 win over the Clippers that gave the Spurs the longest active win streak, 13 games.


End Of The Streak
LV

Another Mavericks streak came to an end Monday: They had won the last 30 games in which they scored at least 100 points. Their only loss of that kind this season was also to the Warriors, 107-104 on Nov. 6. Only two other teams in NBA history won as many consecutive games in one season when scoring at least 100 points: The 1995-96 Bulls had a 38-game streak and the 1971-72 Lakers had a 33-game streak (which was also their NBA-record 33-game winning streak).

To put it another way: The Mavs are 0-2 when scoring at least 100 points against the Warriors this season and 30-0 when scoring at least 100 points against any other team.

Elias Says



The One-Armed Approach
Nash

When dribbling, Steve Nash gains slight angles by using "influence screens" or tight ball screens, driving toward the hoop with his defender just a quarter step behind. In such cases, he often finishes his shots, especially his layups, with one hand. Nash leaves the ball out in front of him on the dribble and simply uses his one hand -- right or left -- to extend and finish the shot.

He is not being merely stylish; he's not showboating. So why does he do this?

Two reasons:

For Nash, the ball would be in greater jeopardy if he were to bring it back to his body, where a defender could reach in and interfere.

Also, this technique allows him to wait until the last possible second to deliver the shot, giving him time to read the help defenders. If they stay home, he scores. If they slide over, he passes.

Few players can make such unusual one-handed drives, because they don't have the kind of control of the ball Nash's hands afford him.

Complete David Thorpe blog


Records At A Glance



Champs Getting Hot

Seven straight wins for Miami


Turning Up The Heat
Jason Williams
Issac Baldizon /NBAE/Getty Images
Heat guard Jason Williams, surrounded by Jazz guards Deron Williams and Derek Fisher, dropped in 15 to help his team to a 86-84 win. Miami is 8-2 since Dwyane Wade got hurt.




Extreme Behavior
Josh Smith

Tuesday's Best
Hawks forward Josh Smith: Goes for 26 points, 17 rebounds, five assists, four steals and three blocks in the win over the Sixers, the team's fourth straight win. Playoffs? Playoffs! Now that would be a shocker.

Ricky Davis

Tuesday's Worst:
Timberwolves guard Ricky Davis: Chucked his headband into the crowd for a T. But the only thing worse than his 1-for-11 night was Indy's collapse. Despite Ricky's dud, Wolves send Pacers to tenth straight defeat, 86-81.

Quote of the Day
"When I go back to Sacramento, it's like I'm playing on the road. When you play home, you don't expect to get booed. It's not comfortable."
-- Kings forward Ron Artest, on being booed every time he scored in Cleveland. He said it doesn't bother him anymore because it happens everywhere.

Complete line score for every player

Playoff matchups if season ended now

Chad Ford's Lottery + Mock Draft

-- Andrew Ayres



The Case For Bron
Redick

Paul (Cleveland, OH): Is there any hope for LeBron James' MVP candidacy? He is clearly more valuable to the Cavs than Nowitzki is to the Mavs. No offense to you Dallas fans, but without LeBron the Cavs are a D-league team. With him we can beat anyone on a given night.

Marc Stein: Sorry, Paul. But I've been saying for weeks that no one in the East has a shot to prevent Nowitzki or Steve Nash from winning this thing and I'm not changing that view now. For someone from the East to win MVP, it was going to take a start-to-finish special season. The Cavs' first half (and LeBron's) doesn't qualify.

J (Chicago): Are the Bulls considered the DARK horse in the East? You got to admit even with Wade out the Heat still get more love than them.

Marc Stein: I haven't forgotten how good Chicago looked in the first four-plus games of that first-round series against the Heat last spring. But I simply struggle to see the East champ not coming from the Miami-Detroit-Cleveland trio.

Complete Marc Stein chat




Daily Dish: Reloading Matrix's Team
dish

Suns VP David Griffin talks with Chad Ford about the success of his team heading into the playoffs and the stockpile of draft picks Phoenix holds this year:

Daily Dish: View from Phoenix




What a Difference a Day Makes
LV

On Monday Knicks owner Jim Dolan said he was "very pleased to provide him [Isiah Thomas] with this well-deserved extension" and said the team had shown "significant improvement" from last season. Hey, after all, the Knicks were in the playoffs, if the season ended Monday.

Tuesday it was a different story. With the Knicks being idle, they dropped to the ninth spot. The Nets defeated the Hornets and the Pacers lost to the Timberwolves. New Jersey moved up to the seventh seed and the Pacers are now eighth. Indiana holds the tiebreaker over New York so the Knicks are again on the outside looking in.

Race For Final Spots
Entering Tue. W-L GB
7. Pacers 29-33 --
8. Knicks 29-34 --
9. Nets 29-35 1/2
Entering Wed. W-L GB
7. Nets 30-35 --
8. Pacers* 29-34 --
9. Knicks 29-34 --

*Owns tiebreaker

-- Michael E. Jackson, ESPN Research

 

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