The Atlanta Hawks didn't panic while they were struggling through a brutal two-week stretch in their schedule. Perhaps that's because they were confident they'd respond positively once the opposition grew easier.
The Hawks look to clinch home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs with their third straight win Friday night when they host the Indiana Pacers, who are on the verge of elimination from the postseason race.
Atlanta (45-34) went 2-6 from March 21-April 4 as it played two games against Boston and one apiece against Cleveland, San Antonio, the Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia and Orlando. The Hawks managed to get wins over the Lakers and lowly Minnesota in that stretch before finishing it with three straight losses.
The Hawks, though, have rebounded with consecutive road wins over sub-.500 teams Toronto and Milwaukee to pull 3 1/2 games ahead of fifth-place Miami in the East. With one more win or one more Heat loss, Atlanta clinches the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in the opening round.
"We're playing for something, man," coach Mike Woodson said. "These guys know what's at stake in terms of this fourth spot."
Hawks guard Joe Johnson scored 30 points and made two big shots in the final minute Wednesday night, stopping Milwaukee's late rally attempt and securing a 113-105 victory. He's averaged 27.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists in Atlanta's back-to-back wins, shooting 6-for-10 from 3-point range.
"He was huge," Woodson said Wednesday. "Coming off 25 last night, he was solid last night and it was a carryover to tonight's game. He made two to three big shots coming down the stretch run. We expect that from Joe."
Johnson and the Hawks hope to continue their success by taking advantage of another team with a losing record.
However, the Pacers (34-44) are refusing to go quietly. Though they're on the verge of elimination, they've shot at least 50.0 percent from the field in each of their last five games and have won six of eight.
Point guard Jarrett Jack had 23 points, six assists and five rebounds and shot 9-for-11, and the Pacers led by as much as 41 in a 130-101 win over Toronto on Wednesday night.
"I think we have a proud bunch of guys," Jack said. "Regardless of what the situation is, whether we're in contention or not in contention, we've got guys who each time they step on the floor, they want to represent the organization really well."
Indiana, which had allowed its previous five opponents to shoot a combined 48.7 percent, held Toronto to 38.4 percent Wednesday.
"Any time that we can challenge shots like we did tonight and get out on the break, we can put points on the board," coach Jim O'Brien said. "If we can bring this defense around, we'll be good."
The Pacers, though, have had trouble stopping Johnson. The three-time All-Star has averaged 27.3 points to lead the Hawks to a 2-1 record in the season series.