Hawks should try to avoid Heat in playoff drive

The Hawks should seek a best-case scenario of finishing strong and avoiding the Heat's playoff bracket.

ATLANTA — Over the next nine days, you'll be inundated with a slew of rumor-based pieces speculating on the trade status of Hawks forward Josh Smith, who'll be an unrestricted free agent at season's end.

This isn't one of 'em.

Instead, we'll operate under the highly plausible scenario that Smith remains with Atlanta past Feb. 21 (NBA trade deadline) and makes one last playoff push with the Hawks, before seeking greener pastures in mid-July.

We'll also chart a course for the Hawks to make the postseason ... and of equal relevance, avoid being in the same bracket as the defending champion Heat.

What It'll Take To Win The Division

Given that LeBron James averaged 61.5 regular-season victories with Cleveland and Miami from 2008-11 (non-lockout campaigns), the Hawks (28-22) would likely have to go 28-4 over the final 32 games to usurp the Heat (34-14) for the Southeast title, and presumably, the No. 1 seed in the East.

Don't expect that to happen. From Feb. 13 to March 13, the Hawks have nine games on the road (key opponents: Utah, LA Lakers, Denver, Boston, Miami) and five combined meetings with the Lakers, Heat and Celtics.

Bottom line: Atlanta's realistic playoff fate lies with seeds four through eight.

What It'll Take To Reach The Playoffs

Through Monday, the Hawks are currently in the No. 6 slot in the Eastern Conference standings, trailing the Bulls (fourth) and Nets (fifth) by no more than 1½ games, and holding a similar advantage over the Celtics (seventh).

The East's ninth-place club, the Sixers (22-28), have been treading water without Andrew Bynum all season. Reportedly, they've also been fielding calls about the trade availability of Evan Turner — the No. 2 overall pick from 2010 who has fallen short of "savior" status in Philadelphia.

The odds of Philly bumping any team, aside from No. 8 Milwaukee, for a playoff spot are remote. The 76ers still have four games against the Heat, three against the Hawks, two apiece against the Pacers and Nets, and one each against the Knicks, Celtics and Bulls. Plus, 12 of Philly's final 16 games are on the road — including a four-game trip in March through LA (Clippers), Denver, Sacramento and Utah.

To further boost Atlanta's edge, the Hawks host two of their remaining three games with the Sixers.

What It'll Take To Avoid The No. 8 Seed

We'll likely know where the Bucks stand on March 19, right before they hit Atlanta. In the next 35 days, Milwaukee (25-25) will confront a reasonable schedule that includes nine home games and just two multi-game trips away from the Bradley Center — with no more than three consecutive road games.

The rationale: If the Bucks don't string together 10 wins during this span, they'll be hurting.

From April 5-17, Milwaukee concludes the year with six road games (key opponents: Knicks, Heat, Hawks, Thunder) and a pair of home tilts (Raptors, Nuggets). It's possible Miami, Oklahoma City, Atlanta, Denver and New York will cruise toward the finish line, aiding Milwaukee's cause, in the form of resting stars for the postseason.

Either way, the Bucks must go 20-12 in the final 32 games to displace the Hawks, Nets or Bulls for a No. 6 seed. Realistically, Milwaukee's best opportunity to evade Miami in the East quarters (No. 1-seed vs. No. 8-seed) would involve catching the point guard-strapped Celtics (27-24).

As such, anything below No. 7 seems implausible for Atlanta.

What It'll Take To Avoid The No. 4 or 5 Slots

This is where things get tricky.

Professional athletes lead their lives around the code of cleanly winning at all costs, meaning the Hawks will put forth a supreme effort over the next two months — at least until a playoff berth and entrenched seed are secure.

Atlanta is too far from the finish line to stack the deck toward ending the regular season on a high note and avoiding the Heat in the first two playoff rounds.

Speaking of which, the Knicks (32-17) and Pacers (31-21) obviously have sound mathematical odds of eclipsing the Heat for the East's best record. But it's not an expected outcome ... particularly when LeBron is riding a five-game streak of 30-plus points (Feb. 3-10) — all Miami victories.

Hence, another reason for Atlanta to steer clear of Miami until late May. An early playoff clash with LeBron would expedite/magnify the Hawks' dilemma of either re-signing or renouncing Josh Smith for next season.

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