Hawks-Nuggets Preview

(AP) – The Atlanta Hawks headed west on their longest road trip of the season with really just one goal left to accomplish: Be at their best when the playoffs begin.

After becoming the first NBA team to reach 50 wins (a few hours ahead of Golden State) with Monday’s 130-105 rout of Sacramento, the Hawks (50-13) left Tuesday on a six-game sojourn.

They open the trip Wednesday night against the Denver Nuggets, followed by games against Phoenix, the Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento, Golden State and Oklahoma City. There’s one back-to-back in that stretch – the Lakers on Sunday, followed by the Kings the following night – so that’s a logical point for coach Mike Budenholzer to split up some rest for his starters.

While Atlanta would love to finish with the best record in the league – it is a half-game behind the Warriors – Budenholzer has made it clear that is a very low priority, with the only tangible benefit being home-court advantage in the NBA Finals, should the Hawks make it that far.

”We don’t care about a whole bunch of victories right now,” forward DeMarre Carroll said. ”We’re worried about being better later.”

Budenholzer has been resting some of his key players, and even took the unusual step of leaving Kyle Korver at home for the last road game at Philadelphia in hopes that would help him break out of a shooting slump.

It sure paid off Monday, as Korver hit six of Atlanta’s franchise-record 20 3-pointers and sparked the Hawks to their highest-scoring game of the season.

”Getting him to a good place is important,” Budenholzer said.

That philosophy applies to his whole team, which has dominated the East and is on the verge of checking off everything on its conference wish list.

The Hawks have a 14 1/2-game lead over Washington in the Southeast and could lock up their first division title since 1994 in the next week or so. They have a sizable lead for the best record in the conference and are eight wins away from their best record ever.

Already, the Hawks reached 50 wins faster than any team in franchise history, an accomplishment that was greeted with a collective ”we’ve got bigger goals” from everybody in the locker room.

”We’ve worked hard this year,” All-Star forward Paul Millsap said. ”But the job is not done.”

Carroll, who made the trip to Philadelphia last weekend but was among three starters who sat out, noticed a difference in how he felt Monday. He made four 3-pointers and scored all of his 20 points in the first half.

”My legs felt good,” he said. ”We were shooting the ball really well and playing with a lot of energy. I’m pretty sure the rest helped us.”

While the Hawks took advantage of one of the league’s weakest defensive teams, it was just how they want to script out things at the offensive end. By hitting from beyond the arc, they opened up plenty of easy shots on the inside. They shot 60.2 percent and finished with a staggering 42 assists, the best in the NBA this season and most by Atlanta since 1993.

”We talk a lot about ball movement, people movement,” Budenholzer said. ”There was a crispness to our offense that allowed us to get into a good place.”

Atlanta posted a 96-84 win over the Nuggets (23-41) on Dec. 7, getting 23 points and 4-of-5 shooting from beyond the arc from Millsap.

That victory came at home, however, and the Hawks have dropped seven straight and nine of 10 visits to Denver. Plus, the Nuggets are playing better since Melvin Hunt replaced the fired Brian Shaw last week.

Denver rolled to a 106-78 win over NBA-worst New York on Monday to improve to 3-2 under Hunt after losing 19 of 21. The Nuggets have scored 100 or more points in each of those five games.

”Playing at that pace is fun. It’s exciting,” said Kenneth Faried, who had 19 points and 11 rebounds. ”The fans get into it, we get into it, we get to stand up for a big play. It’s not just, bring the ball upcourt, pass it into the post. It’s more like bring it up, pass, cut, backspin, spin, lob – all that stuff.”