ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Hawks knew there was a team creeping up from behind in the playoff race.
They’re focused on who’s ahead of them.
Jeff Teague scored 27 points and Al Horford had 26, taking control after a sluggish first quarter to lead the Hawks past Milwaukee 98-90 on Wednesday night and stifle the Bucks’ push in the Eastern Conference.
“We knew they’ve been playing well,” Teague said. “They want to move up, but we want to move up, too. We’re not looking at who’s behind us.”
Coming off an ugly loss to Dallas at Philips Arena, the Hawks picked up a much needed win in their bid for home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. The Bucks still have a comfortable lead for the final playoff spot in the East but fell 3 games behind fifth-place Atlanta in the tightly bunched field, which is essentially the Miami Heat and everyone else.
“Teague and Horford did a really good job as far as attacking,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said. “When we executed what we were trying to do, we got some really good shots.”
Teague scored 11 points in the second quarter and a dozen more in the third after being challenged at halftime by assistant Nick Van Exel. The Hawks went to the final period up 77-59, their biggest lead of the night.
Horford scored 10 points in the final period and finished with 15 rebounds, stepping up to help the Hawks hold off a Milwaukee comeback.
“We didn’t finish as strong as we needed to,” Horford said. “But the most important thing is we got the win.”
Van Exel didn’t say much to Teague at the half.
He didn’t have to.
“He just said, `Come on,'” Teague said. “I knew what he meant. Pick up my play. Pick up my energy.”
Led by Brandon Jennings with 21 points, Bucks closed to 94-90 with just under a minute to go. But Jennings missed a free throw that could have made it a one-possession game, then came up short on a tough jumper with Teague in his face. Josh Smith clinched it by making two free throws with 27.9 seconds left.
Smith also had a double-double, scoring just 12 points on 5-of-14 shooting but helping out with a season-high 16 rebounds. Devin Harris added 15 points.
The Bucks shot just 37 percent from the field, unable to take advantage even when the Hawks let them back in the game. Atlanta won despite turning it over 17 times, leading to 19 points for Milwaukee.
“This is a really good win for us,” Drew said.
Larry Sanders had 19 points and 14 rebounds for the Bucks, who had won eight of 11. J.J. Redick added 18 points and Mike Dunleavy had 10.
Milwaukee almost overcame a dismal third quarter.
“When you dig yourself a hole like that, you don’t have to play perfectly, but almost,” coach Jim Boylan said. “You need to come up with those key loose balls and those key opportunities and we just weren’t able to do that tonight. We kept fighting and tried to work our way back. We just couldn’t convert when we needed to.”
Beforehand, Drew stressed the importance of the game and urged his team to have “playoff intensity from the beginning.”
But, with a small, listless crowd looking on that included Super Bowl quarterback Colin Kaepernick, neither team played with much urgency in the opening quarter, which ended with the score tied at 18. The Hawks made only 6 of 20 from the field, while the Bucks were 8 of 32.
Teague came alive in the second, knocking down a couple of 3-pointers to help the Hawks to a 48-43 lead at the break. When the point guard continued to sink shots, Atlanta stretched the advantage throughout the third and appeared comfortably in front heading to the final period.
“Teague had an amazing game,” Sanders said.
Milwaukee, which had beaten Portland at home the previous night, found some energy in the final period but couldn’t finish.
“It was too late to put the pressure on,” Sanders said. “The game was kind of over.”
NOTES: The crowd of 11,920 was Atlanta’s smallest home turnout since 10,162 for a game against Charlotte on Nov. 28. … Kyle Korver extended his Hawks record to 61 consecutive games with at least one 3-pointer. … Kaepernick, who led San Francisco to a victory over Atlanta in the NFC title game, watched the game from a front-row seat at center court. Well, actually, he appeared to spend most of his time looking at his phone, though he did look up for the KissCam. … Atlanta G DeShawn Stevenson went out in the first half with a lower right leg contusion. … F Ersan Ilyasova (left hip pain) and F Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (sprained toe) did not make the trip for Milwaukee. … These teams will see plenty of each other in the closing month of the season. They play again Sunday in Milwaukee, then finish up the season series in Atlanta on April 12.