The regular season has become essentially meaningless for the Atlanta Hawks. That’s far from true for the Charlotte Hornets.
Needing a strong late-season push to stay in playoff contention, the Hornets look to snap a three-game skid Saturday night when they host the Hawks, who have wrapped up the Eastern Conference’s top seed.
Since dropping three straight to Golden State, Oklahoma City and San Antonio while allowing 117.0 points per game, Atlanta (55-17) has been much better defensively against some lesser competition.
The Hawks allowed their fewest points in 29 games in Wednesday’s 95-83 win over Orlando, then held Miami to 39.0 percent shooting Friday in a 99-86 victory that clinched the top spot in the East.
The question now facing coach Mike Budenholzer is how heavily to lean on his starters for the season’s final 10 games. Barring a collapse by Golden State, which has a four-game lead on Atlanta, the Hawks will finish with the league’s second-best record.
"(We’ll) make sure we’re in the best place we can be going into the playoffs. … It’s a great debate,” Budenholzer said. ”I think it’s a credit to our players and all the good work they’ve done all year. We’re obviously proud of what they’ve done.
"I’m very happy for them, happy for us, happy for our organization and our fans.”
One player who figures to see rest is Kyle Korver, who has played the last three games with a broken nose. Korver’s renaissance season has seen him average 12.3 points – his highest since 2006-07 – while shooting a league-best 49.8 percent from 3-point range, but he sat out three games after the injury happened and is just 5 of 14 from 3 in his last two.
”My nose is still broken,” said Korver. ”I won’t have to worry about it for the playoffs, which is what really matters, right?”
The Hornets (30-41) are one of four teams fighting for the chance to face Atlanta in the first round, but their 110-107 double-overtime loss to Washington on Friday dropped them to 11th in the East, 1 1/2 games behind current eighth seed Boston. Brooklyn and Indiana are 9th and 10th.
Charlotte shot just 34.6 percent, but that wasn’t enough to shake Al Jefferson’s confidence.
”I think this loss is going to haunt us all summer long, even when we do make the playoffs.” said Jefferson, who had 31 points and 10 rebounds. ”This loss could probably be the difference between the eighth seed and the seventh seed.”
Charlotte is 2-8 since vaulting into the playoff race with a five-game winning streak from March 1-8. A lack of offense has stood out as the main culprit, as the Hornets have averaged just 91.5 points in their last 10 and shot below 40 percent in seven of those.
Kemba Walker was held to nine points Friday and has averaged 13.2 since returning to the lineup March 11. He had averaged 18.8 points in 42 games prior to his injury.
Walker and Mo Williams shot a combined 11 for 43 from the field against the Wizards. Williams finished with 26 points and 10 assists despite a lingering knee injury that had him questionable to play Friday.
The Hornets beat the Hawks 122-119 in double-overtime at home on Nov. 7 behind a season-high 34 points from Jefferson. Atlanta held Jefferson to 11 and Charlotte to 33.0 percent shooting three weeks later in a 105-75 rout at Philips Arena.