With their play over the last three weeks, the Atlanta Hawks appear to have evolved from a young team with potential to a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference.That's due in large part to Joe Johnson, who's made a leap of his own.
After notching their ninth victory in 10 games, Johnson and the Hawks look to win seven straight for the first time in nearly a decade when they visit the New Jersey Nets on Friday night.
Atlanta (21-10) emerged as a much-improved team last spring, when it made the playoffs for the first time in nine years and took eventual NBA champion Boston to seven games in a first-round series.
The Hawks have continued to progress this season, with their only loss in their last 10 games coming by an 88-85 score to the Celtics on Dec. 17. They've won six straight to match their season-opening six-game run, putting them in position to win seven in a row for the first time since April 14-28, 1999.
"I think guys are committed," Hawks coach Mike Woodson said after Atlanta beat Indiana 110-104 on Tuesday night. "We're really working hard on the defensive end, rebounding the basketball and we're sharing it offensively. We're coming up with big plays in the fourth quarter."
Johnson has been largely responsible for the Hawks' ability to close out games. He scored 12 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter Tuesday, including the final five points of the game.
"What can you say? Joe has been huge for us this season," Woodson said. "I put him in the same class as LeBron (James), Kobe (Bryant) - he's playing at that level. He's making big plays for our team, he's making players around him better."
Johnson, the league's ninth-leading scorer at 23.4 points per game, thinks he deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as James, Bryant and some of the NBA's other big stars.
"I don't get treated like that, but I feel like I'm up there in the elite," he said.
Johnson played like one of the league's best in Atlanta's first two games against New Jersey (15-17) this season, averaging 31.5 points while shooting 60.0 percent from the field and 55.6 percent (10-for-18) from 3-point range.
The Nets, though, won 115-108 at New Jersey on Nov. 14 and swept the home-and-home series with a 119-107 victory the next day. Nets point guard Devin Harris averaged 31.5 points and 9.0 assists in those contests.
Harris had 19 points and nine assists Wednesday, but New Jersey scored 11 points in the second quarter and fell 83-75 to Detroit. All-Star guard Vince Carter was ejected in the period for arguing a call.
Despite the defeat, Harris was encouraged by the Nets' performance.
"This is a good measuring stick - (Detroit) is a team that has been to the Eastern Conference finals a bunch of years in a row, and we were right there with them, even without Vince."
To compete with the streaking Hawks, however, the Nets will need to improve their play at home, where they've dropped seven of eight to fall to 5-12.
"Mentally, we have to be more consistent at home," said coach Lawrence Frank, whose club is 10-5 away from the Izod Center. "You can't let your guard down and lose your focus simply because you're home. You have to have the same spirit, energy and toughness you have on the road."
New Jersey hasn't had trouble on its home court against Atlanta lately. The Nets have won 19 of their last 22 home games against the Hawks, including four in a row.