This has to be one of the most enjoyable homestands Atlanta Hawks fans have ever seen.The Hawks can make it a perfect one Thursday night and notch their longest winning streak in nearly a decade as they meet the Dallas Mavericks.
Entering the start of this seven-game homestand March 7, Atlanta had lost two straight and six of eight as its grip on fourth place in the Eastern Conference appeared to be slipping away. Miami was within a half-game and Detroit was within two.
However, those gaps have since widened because the Hawks (40-28) have responded by winning six in a row.
"We're just trying to separate ourselves from the pack. Miami's right on our heels still," center Al Horford said after finishing with 23 points and 12 rebounds in a 119-97 win over Sacramento on Tuesday.
Horford has four of his team-high 16 double-doubles on this homestand, helping the Hawks post their third six-game winning streak of the season. They suffered narrow defeats after the previous two - 103-102 at Boston on Nov. 12 and 93-91 in overtime at New Jersey on Jan. 2.
Atlanta hasn't had a longer winning streak since a seven-game run April 14-28, 1999, the last year in which the Hawks won a playoff series. Maintaining the No. 4 seed could be key to ending that drought because it would give them home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
"We need to continue to handle our business at home," said coach Mike Woodson, whose Hawks are 26-7 at Philips Arena. "We have 14 games left, with eight being at home and we need to take care of home and worry about the road when we get there."
Atlanta visits East-leading Cleveland on Saturday before another homestand. That one will be four games and the final three are against elite competition - San Antonio, Boston and the Los Angeles Lakers.
While the Hawks enter Thursday looking to clinch their first non-losing season since going 50-32 in 1997-98, Dallas (41-27) tries to lock up its ninth straight season with a winning record.
The Mavericks are eighth in the West and very much within striking distance of fourth but haven't played particularly well of late. After back-to-back losses to close a four-game road trip, Dallas returned home Wednesday and nearly blew a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter of a 100-98 win over a Detroit squad missing Richard Hamilton, Allen Iverson and Rasheed Wallace.
"We're still a team in progress," forward Antoine Wright said. "But we're getting better."
With coach Rick Carlisle often using smaller lineups, Dallas has been outrebounded by at least nine in three straight games and team rebounding leader Dirk Nowitzki has only grabbed 18 boards in that span.
Nowitzki, however, did score 30 points Wednesday. Since the All-Star break, the Mavs are 5-0 when he scores at least 29 and 5-6 when he doesn't.
Atlanta's Joe Johnson had 30 or more points in four straight games before scoring 20 on 8-of-21 shooting Wednesday.
He scored 32 in the only meeting with Dallas this season, but the Hawks couldn't overcome a 19-point deficit in a 100-98 road loss Dec. 6. The Mavs have won six of seven versus the Hawks, with the only loss coming in their most recent trip to Atlanta - 101-94 on Nov. 2, 2007.