Hawks look for better defensive showing versus Nuggets

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Hawks have won 15 of their past 21 games, but they’ve alternated good and bad performances since starting the stretch with seven straight victories.

The Hawks, who host the improved Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night after a lopsided home loss to Utah, need to start putting victories together with a three-game West Coast road trip looming.

Atlanta (30-22) trails first-place Washington by a half-game in the Southeast Division after a 120-95 loss to Utah on Monday in the middle of a three-game homestand.

The Jazz shot a season-best 61.3 percent and tied their most points in a game as the Hawks laid an egg defensively.

Thabo Sefolosha, one of the Hawks’ top defenders, has missed the past five games with a groin injury, but coach Mike Budenholzer said that there was “no excuse” for his team’s defensive performance.

“The guys that are out there playing, they’re very capable,” he said. “They’re very good defenders, individually and as a team. Tonight they weren’t. When it happens enough times, you have to look at yourself honestly.”

The Nuggets (23-28) were missing three starters at home against Dallas on Monday, but won 110-87 for their ninth victory in the past 14 games as Will Barton took advantage of a start to score a season-best 31 points.

“I was given a bigger opportunity and a bigger role and, you know, just rose to the moment,” Barton said. “We had some guys down. I just wanted to come out and make plays for my teammates.”

Barton’s energy on the defensive end was also a key for the Nuggets, who held an opponent to less than 90 points for the first time this season. The Nuggets have given up at least 110 points in 16 of their previous 18 games.

“We’ve been waiting for a game like this for a long time,” coach Michael Malone said.

Danilo Gallinari, averaging a team-high 17.2 points, remains out against the Hawks with a groin strain, but the Nuggets could have Emmanuel Mudiay and Kenneth Faried back. Mudiay is battling back issues and Faried was away from the team against Dallas for personal reasons.

Gallinari has missed the past three games and Mudiay four of the past seven. Gallinari is expected to be out at least another week.

Atlanta is the first stop in a three-game road trip that ends in Cleveland for the Nuggets, who are fighting for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

The Hawks won 109-108 in Denver on Nov. 23 and have beaten the Nuggets at home each of the past four seasons.

Dennis Schroder scored 27 points for the Hawks at Denver, while Gallinari had 21 for the Nuggets.

Schroder’s 17.3 scoring average is second on the Hawks to the 17.7 of Paul Millsap and the point guard is handing out a team-best 6.3 assists per game.

The Hawks’ ball movement was almost as bad as the defense against Utah, though.

“Until we get it right, until we move the ball every night like we’re supposed to, we’re going to get smacked,” Kent Bazemore said. “We don’t have the luxury of letting one or two guys carry the load every night. It has to be a collective effort. I don’t know how many times it’s going to have to happen before we figure it out.”