The Hawks clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs Friday night and they acted as if they had just beaten Milwaukee on a Tuesday in November.
That’s probably a good thing.
“Maybe we’ll do a little, ‘Hip-hip, hooray’ on the plane,” Kyle Korver said.
“I mean, it’s great,” Paul Millsap said. “But we really haven’t been focusing on it. We’ve got bigger goals ahead. We haven’t been looking at the scoreboard or looking at other teams. We’ve been looking at ourselves, trying to get ourselves right.”
The Hawks (55-17), playing the best defense they had in a few weeks, led Miami by 18 points at halftime (55-37) and cruised to a 99-86 win over the remains of the Heat.
Miami isn’t the same team without LeBron James (Cleveland) and Chris Bosh (injured), and with Dwyane Wade seemingly playing on one leg. The Heat’s bandwagon fan base, which used to fill Philips Arena, also appears to have shrunk, or at least morphed into Cleveland fans). Funny how that works.
But the Hawks’ win, combined with Cleveland’s loss to Brooklyn, officially clinched the East, even if it was a bit anti-climactic. It almost seemed fitting that when coach Mike Budenholzer walked into the locker room minutes after the game to tell his players that the Cavaliers had lost, half of the team was in the showers.
“Bud found out, came in and there were only like five guys in here,” Korver said. “He was like, ‘Good accomplishment, we won the East.'”
Millsap led the Hawks with 21 points, nine rebounds, four assists, two blocks and a steal, and he was singled out for praise afterward by Budenholzer. Millsap has been their best player of late, carrying them during a relative slump — if you want to call 5-5 for this team a slump — and picking up the offensive slack when Korver was out with a broken nose.
I’ll have a full column on Millsap in Sunday’s AJC (and online on MyAJC on Saturday).
But about the Hawks: Their response Friday night after a series of uneven performances — and a humiliating, one-sided home loss to San Antonio — was significant. That the East-clinching win should come over the franchise, Miami, which represented the conference in the finals four straight years also seemed fitting.
“Coming into the season I don’t think a lot of people thought we’d be in this position with 10 games left,” Korver said. “It really says something about our team. At the same time, this is just one of our goals along the way.”
As the top seed, the Hawks will face the No. 8 seed in the first round of the playoffs. As of today, that would be Boston (32-40). Miami is one game ahead in seventh overall at 33-39. Just behind Boston are Brooklyn (31-40), Indiana (31-41) and Charlotte (30-41). That will be the extent of the Hawks’ scoreboard watching the rest of the season.
To say this is a rare situation for this franchise would be an understatement. It’s only the second time in franchise history it will go into the playoffs as a No. 1 seed (1993-94 was the other year). With 10 games left, expect to see a lot of Kent Bazemore, Mike Muscala and Elton Brand in the next two weeks, while the regulars in the rotation rest up.
“This was just one thing on our bucket list,” Millsap said.
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