At the end of December, the Atlanta Hawks looked like they were well on their way to becoming serious contenders in the Eastern Conference. Their tough start to January may indicate they haven't yet made that leap.The Hawks look to bounce back from their most lopsided loss of the season and their first pair of back-to-back defeats in nearly a month as they host the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday afternoon.
Atlanta (22-13) won nine of its last 10 games in December, notching wins over Cleveland, Detroit and Denver in that stretch while suffering its lone loss by three points to defending NBA champion Boston.
The Hawks' success seemed to put them on the map as one of the teams to beat in the East, but they've stumbled with three losses in four games to start January.
After opening the new year with an overtime loss to New Jersey, Atlanta shot a season-high 58.9 percent in a quality win over Houston. But the Hawks were just swept in a home-and-home series against Southeast Division rival Orlando, perhaps a reminder that they still have some work to do before they're considered a serious threat to the Magic's hold on first place.
Atlanta's late rally fell short in a 106-102 home loss to Orlando on Wednesday night, and the Hawks shot a season-low 35.0 percent in a 121-87 road defeat Friday night. Joe Johnson was the only starter to reach double figures with 11 points as Atlanta's starting lineup combined to shoot 15-for-48 (31.3 percent) Friday.
"I'm not real happy," Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. "We just didn't compete tonight and it started with the five guys that started the game. That's unacceptable. We've got to go back and address that. I want these guys to understand that's unacceptable."
Woodson's club hopes to rebound in its return to Philips Arena, where it's won 15 of 18 games. The Hawks' loss to the Magic on Wednesday was their first at home since Dec. 17.
While the Hawks have stumbled lately, the 76ers (16-20) have pulled out of last place in the Atlantic Division by matching their season-high three-game win streak after dropping six of their previous seven.
Andre Miller had 22 points and six assists and went 9-for-12 from the field to lead the Sixers to a 93-87 win over Charlotte on Friday night. After the game, Miller was cautious not to read too much into the team's recent success.
"It hasn't changed yet," he said. "We've still got a long way to go, but we have played a couple of good games. We still need to get better and we've got to keep working on it."
Sixers coach Tony DiLeo, who took over for the fired Maurice Cheeks on Dec. 13, thinks he knows the formula for success.
"Our game is simple," DiLeo said Friday after the Sixers held a team to fewer than 90 points for the first time since his second game Dec. 17. "We've got to play defense. If we play defense and don't turn the ball over, then we'll win a lot of games."
The Sixers had some problems in both those areas in their first meeting with the Hawks this season. They committed 18 turnovers and allowed Johnson to score 35 points and shoot 14-for-23 from the field in their 95-88 road loss Nov. 1.
Atlanta has won four of the teams' last five meetings, with Johnson averaging 24.4 points, 6.0 assists and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 53.8 percent in those games.