The Atlanta Hawks still have their sights set on home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. They could get it if their bench keeps contributing the way it has recently.
Atlanta has won four of five and its next three games are against Eastern Conference bottom feeders, starting with Sunday's opener of a home-and-home set with the Toronto Raptors at Philips Arena.
The Hawks (35-24) came into April getting little from their reserves - their 27.6 points per game were seventh-fewest in the league - but suddenly the second unit has been providing plenty of production. Atlanta's bench has averaged 42.4 points in five games this month, including a season-high 58 in Friday's 109-81 rout at Orlando.
"If we keep getting bench production like that over the next six or seven games going into the playoffs, we are going to be a scary ball club in the postseason," starter Josh Smith told the league's official website.
Atlanta is 11-4 when getting at least 35 points from its reserves.
Smith has been awfully good himself lately, averaging 23.6 points and 10.1 rebounds as the Hawks have won nine of 13. Friday's win put them a game ahead of Orlando for the East's No. 5 seed - Atlanta also owns the tiebreaker - but there's a possibility of an even better finish.
Though the Hawks have a better record than Boston, they can't overtake the Celtics because the Atlantic Division winner will automatically earn a top-four seed. They can, however, catch Indiana, which has a slight lead on Atlanta - but Larry Drew's club also owns that tiebreaker and will play six of its final seven games at home.
The Hawks are 23-6 against sub-.500 opponents, which should bode well for their next three contests - Sunday and Monday against Toronto (21-39) and Wednesday's visit from Detroit.
Atlanta has averaged 110.0 points and shot 43.0 percent from beyond the arc while winning seven straight in this series at home, and it has won six in a row overall against the Raptors.
The Hawks have won 10 consecutive games versus Toronto with Joe Johnson in the lineup, with the six-time All-Star averaging 23.9 points.
Johnson has had to do less lately with Smith's surge and the increased production from Jannero Pargo, Marvin Williams and the rest of the bench. He's averaged 13.0 shots over his last six games, nearly three fewer than his season mark.
He hasn't hit 20 points in that stretch, but Atlanta isn't better when Johnson's role diminishes. The Hawks are 17-2 when he goes for 21 points or more and 14-20 when he scores 20 or fewer.
Despite his success against Toronto, Johnson may find it tough to get good looks Sunday. The Raptors have held opponents to 88.4 points per game in April, and they limited Boston to 47 through three quarters Friday before hanging on for an 84-79 win.
"They did an excellent job of coming in offensively and defensively and taking it to a team that has been one of the hottest since the All-Star break," coach Dwane Casey said.
DeMar DeRozan led the way with 22 points. The Raptors are 15-16 when he scores above his 16.8 average and 6-21 when he doesn't, which may explain their recent failures versus Atlanta. The third-year guard has been held to 10.5 points per game on 38.8 percent shooting during Toronto's six-game slide against the Hawks.
The Raptors are shooting 19.7 percent from beyond the arc in that stretch.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
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