Two seasons ago, both the Atlanta Hawks and Portland Trail Blazers were 50-loss teams riding lengthy playoff droughts.Now, they're two of the NBA's emerging young contenders, and both will be looking to improve their postseason positioning when they meet Sunday afternoon in Atlanta.
The Hawks (38-28) enter Sunday's matchup having won four straight to start a seven-game homestand, including victories over Western Conference contenders New Orleans and Utah.
Joe Johnson's 30-point effort keyed Friday night's 101-87 win over Indiana as the Hawks played a third straight game without forward Marvin Williams. It's unclear how long a strained lower back will sideline Williams, who's averaging 14.0 points and 6.4 rebounds.
"We've all got to pick up our play, definitely," said Johnson, who has scored at least 30 points in each of the three games without Williams after failing to reach 20 in any of his previous four.
"I'm trying to be the first one," he added. "At least jump-start us."
The Hawks also have played superior defense in their last four games, with opponents averaging 85.5 points and shooting 41.8 percent from the field.
One season after reaching the playoffs for the first time in nine years as a No. 8 seed, Atlanta is trying to strengthen its grip on the fourth spot in the East, meaning it would earn home-court advantage in the first round. The Hawks hold a 1 1/2-game lead on fifth-place Miami.
"I'm pleased with the way we've played on this homestand, especially considering the loss of Marvin, but the tough teams just keep on coming," said Atlanta center Al Horford, who has seven double-doubles in his last 10 games. "We can't relax at all, we just have to continue the way we're playing and try to protect our playoff position."
Portland has been especially tough on Atlanta, with a 108-98 win over the Hawks on Feb. 20 being the Blazers' 13th victory in the last 14 meetings. They've won six straight in Atlanta - the last two in overtime.
The Blazers (41-24) have won six of their last eight overall, including Friday night's 109-100 home victory over New Jersey, but they'll be trying to solve some recent road woes as they start a five-game trip.
They're 13-18 away from home after dropping six of their last seven, a stretch that includes losses to two of the West's worst teams - Oklahoma City and Golden State.
The importance of the trip is magnified with Portland in a group of seven teams jockeying for position in the West's 2-through-8 spots, although it is looking increasingly likely the Blazers will qualify for the postseason for the first time in six years.
"It is a key stretch, but I think that's why (Friday's) game was so important to find some rhythm," forward LaMarcus Aldridge said after posting his fourth straight double-double. "I think that's going to be big for us going into the Atlanta game, having a good rhythm and being confident to try to get that first one."
Brandon Roy led the Blazers with 31 points and Aldridge added 19 points and 10 rebounds, but it was rookie Nicolas Batum's career-best 20-point effort that was most surprising.
Batum, who briefly left the game with a shoulder injury but returned, also guarded New Jersey's Vince Carter. A defensive specialist who has been a starter nearly all season, the Frenchman stepped up offensively with Portland missing fellow rookie Rudy Fernandez, who has sat out the last two games with a bruised chest and a hip pointer.
The Blazers also remain without oft-injured rookie Greg Oden, who has missed 13 straight games due to a knee problem.