They won't finish with a top-two seed in the Eastern Conference, but it's tough to find anyone playing better basketball over the past month than the Atlanta Hawks.
It's nearly as hard to find a team playing worse than the Chicago Bulls.
The visiting Hawks can punch their playoff ticket Monday night with a ninth win in their last 10 games as they try to complete a season sweep of a Bulls team that looks like it can make other mid-April plans.
Article continues below ...
The East's Nos. 3-9 teams were separated by 4 1/2 games in the standings on Feb. 26, a point at which the Hawks (44-30) were closer to finding themselves out of the postseason picture than the Bulls (36-36).
That's certainly not the case a month later. Atlanta beat Chicago 103-88 that night to kick off a 13-3 stretch that has it currently occupying the conference's third seed, while the Bulls have lost 10 of 16 to fall into the ninth spot.
A win Monday would ensure that the Hawks can't finish worse than Chicago, so they'd clinch a playoff berth.
The Bulls looked so inept during a stretch of three losses in four days – two to the New York Knicks and Saturday's 111-89 no-show in Orlando – that a certain dirty word keeps popping up surrounding the team.
“I don't think anybody's quit,” guard Jimmy Butler said. “We've just hit adversity at the wrong time and we've got to fix it. It better carry over from in this locker room out to the court. That's the only way to get this thing fixed.”
Chicago has allowed 108.5 points per 100 possessions over the last 16 games – 6.4 more than it gave up over its first 56. The Bulls' minus-7.0 net rating in this stretch is better than only New Orleans, Phoenix and Philadelphia.
“Obviously, we're really struggling right now,” forward Mike Dunleavy said. “We look like a team that's lost in terms of doing the things you need to do. It's a lot of stuff. We have to find our way. We've had success in the past, but it's going to be tough right now.”
It's going to be even tougher with seven of the next eight games against likely playoff clubs, starting with a Hawks team that's been arguably the best in basketball in this stretch. Starting with that Feb. 26 game against Chicago, Atlanta's plus-11.4 net rating is the NBA's best – just ahead of San Antonio and Golden State – and its 94.8 defensive rating is easily leading the league.
Eight Hawks posted double figures in Saturday's 112-95 rout at Detroit, with Paul Millsap becoming the fifth player in six games to lead Atlanta in scoring. He finished with 23 points, nine rebounds, five assists, four steals and four blocks, a line only four other NBA players have reached since 2000.
All that came in just over three quarters after Millsap needed 10 stitches above his eye. He's expected to play Monday.
“He's a heck of a player. We're very fortunate to have him,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “We actually want more. We're on him and think he could do even more for us. When he plays with great energy and great force, his impact on the game is huge, and he knows that.”
Millsap has blocked 12 shots as the Hawks have won all three from the Bulls by an average of 17.7 points, while it's been Al Horford who's done the bulk of the scoring damage with 22.3 points per game on 69.8 percent shooting.
Atlanta has owned this series largely because of its defense, forcing a combined 62 turnovers that have led to 77 points.
Derrick Rose has eight in the two he's played while going 11 of 33 from the field.