The Atlanta Hawks can take a big step toward clinching their first playoff berth in nine years by knocking the Indiana Pacers out of contention with a win at Conseco Fieldhouse on Tuesday.Even with a victory, Atlanta still will have to wait until at least Wednesday to officially begin celebrating.
The Hawks (36-41) have a three-game lead over the Pacers (33-44) for the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot, and a four-game lead over the 10th-place New Jersey Nets. All three teams have five games remaining.
Indiana and Atlanta split their previous two meetings, so if the Hawks win on Tuesday, the Pacers would lose the tiebreaker and officially be eliminated from postseason contention. New Jersey, however, could still catch the Hawks if Atlanta loses its final four games and the Nets win all five of theirs. In that case, New Jersey would claim the final playoff spot because it won three of four regular season games against the Hawks.
The Nets are idle on Tuesday. They would be eliminated with an Atlanta win on Tuesday and a loss Wednesday against Cleveland.
Atlanta comes in having won six of its last seven and 10 of 13, including a 92-85 victory at Philadelphia on Saturday.
"These guys are growing up and they're playing for something," Atlanta coach Mike Woodson said. "I'm so proud of the guys."
Woodson must be proud of his very young starting frontcourt.
Rookie center Al Horford has scored in double figures in six straight games, averaging 14.5 points and 8.8 rebounds while shooting 56.5 percent from the field. Marvin Williams, who turns 22 in June, has averaged 18.2 points in his last five games, shooting 63.5 percent from the floor and 25-for-29 (86.2 percent) at the free-throw line. Josh Smith, 22, is averaging 20.0 points and 8.8 boards in the last four games.
The Hawks haven't been to the postseason since the 1998-99 season, when they lost in the conference semifinals to the New York Knicks.
"We're a young team, but we play with poise," said Johnson, averaging 26.1 points in his last 19 games. "Mike (Bibby) and I are the only guys who have been to the playoffs, but the young guys are stepping up. I'm having a great time."
The Hawks improved to 11-27 away from home this season with Saturday's win, easily the worst road record of any team in playoff contention. They play three of their final five games on the road, where they have won four of their last six.
The Pacers, meanwhile, are coming off a 105-97 win over Milwaukee on Sunday. Travis Diener scored 18 points - 15 in the fourth quarter - hitting five of his six 3-point attempts in the final period to help Indiana rally from a 10-point deficit.
"We all knew that we had to win this game," Diener said. "Everyone knows the circumstances."
The Pacers missed the playoffs last season for the first time in 10 years. They now find themselves on the verge of failing to qualify in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1988 and 1989.
"I feel real lousy that we're not locked into the playoffs," coach Jim O'Brien told the Pacers' official Web site. "Our resilience and attitude have been great all year. Our guys are clawing. They know they pretty much have to pitch a shutout and they're trying with everything they have."
The Pacers are 19-19 at home this season. They've won three straight and eight of nine at Conseco since March 2, and are 12-2 at home against the Hawks since the 2000-01 season.