An afterthought in the Eastern Conference's three-team race during 2008-09, the Atlanta Hawks seemed like they'd be in a similar position this season.Right now, though, everyone's chasing them.
The Hawks have barely been tested during a six-game winning streak that's propelled them to the conference's best record, and they'll look to make it seven in a row Friday night against the visiting Houston Rockets.
Atlanta (10-2) finished 19 games behind top-seeded Cleveland in the East last season, 15 behind No. 2 Boston and 12 in back of third-seeded Orlando in the Southeast Division. The Hawks survived a first-round playoff series in seven games against Miami but were swept by the Cavaliers in the next round, losing each game by double digits.
Not much drop-off was expected from Cleveland, Boston or Orlando, but the Hawks certainly have looked capable of inserting themselves in the conversation of East contenders. Atlanta has won by an average of 15.2 points during the streak, beating Miami 105-90 on Wednesday behind 30 points from Joe Johnson.
"If we stay healthy and do what we're capable of doing, no one is going to sweep us," forward Josh Smith said after finishing with 16 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists and two blocks. "We'll make a series out of it with any team."
Johnson leads the way with 23.6 points per game, but it seems the Hawks are at their best when Smith is producing. He averaged 14.0 points and 6.2 rebounds through the first six games but has averaged 18.5 points, 12.5 boards and 2.7 blocks during the win streak - Atlanta's longest since a seven-game run from March 7-19.
"We're a tough team to beat when he's playing like that," Johnson said. "When he's rebounding, playing defense and diving down in the paint for dunks and layups, it makes the defense collapse. That's leaving guys like me and Mike (Bibby) open for shots."
The seven-game winning streak in March came at Philips Arena, and Atlanta is 6-0 there this season. It hasn't won its first seven at home since 1997-98, the last time it had a 50-win season.
Atlanta will now face Houston (7-5), which already has double-digit road wins against Utah and the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Rockets needed an impressive fourth quarter to blow open a close game at Minnesota on Wednesday. Luis Scola had eight of his team-high 20 points in the final 4:35, and Houston turned a one-point lead after three into a 97-84 win.
"When Luis gets it going, he works so hard that if you don't match his energy and effort you feel bad," forward Shane Battier said. "That is the good thing about this team, we have a lot of effort guys that you can draw from."
Houston is 5-1 when Scola records a double-double.
The Rockets' start has been somewhat of a surprise considering the absence of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, who participated in pregame workouts Wednesday but isn't considered ready to return.
Trevor Ariza is taking plenty of shots with no other proven perimeter scorer in the lineup, and though he averages a team-best 18.4 points, he's struggling from the field. Ariza is shooting 30.8 percent (16 of 52) in the last three games.
Each team won on its home floor last season, with Smith scoring 29 in a 103-100 victory Jan. 3.
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