ATLANTA — There’s no easing their way back from the All-Star break for the Hawks.
Fresh off a weekend in New York that seemed more like a takeover — Atlanta had eight representatives take part in five different events — the Eastern Conference leaders face a stretch that includes six of seven games against teams in playoff position.
"I think it’s great for us. I think any time we’re challenged or tested, I think our group looks forward to that," said Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer after Thursday’s practice.
It starts Friday night at Philips Arena against the Raptors, who sit second in the East and are winners of nine of their last 11.
They’re also the only team to beat the Hawks twice this season, as the Raptors won the season opener 109-102 in Toronto, then beat Atlanta again 126-115 on Nov. 26 in Philips Arena.
After the Raptors, Atlanta heads to Milwaukee, (sixth in East) then hosts Dallas (fifth in West), and after a respite vs. the 17-win Magic, heads to Miami (eighth in East) before back-to-back home games vs. the Rockets (fourth in West) and Cavaliers (fifth in East) to open March. The Heat retooled, adding Goran Dragic before Thursday’s trade deadline and the Bucks landed Michael Carter-Willliams, Miles Plumlee and Tyler Ennis in a three-team deal that cost them Brandon Knight.
"We want to get another 19-game win streak going," said All-Star forward Paul Millsap. "We know the level of focus that takes. It’s going to be tough but we feel like we’re capable of doing that."
While the Hawks have already beaten each of those teams, including going 2-0 against the Heat and 2-1 against Cleveland, that group is responsible for five of Atlanta’s 11 losses.
Along with the two defeats as the hands of the Raptors, the Hawks fell to the Cavaliers 127-94 on Nov. 15, the Magic 100-99 Dec. 13 and the Bucks 90-85 on Dec. 27 in the game that preceded their 19-game winning streak.
But three of those losses came on the road and the Hawks are winners of their last 12 home games
Atlanta boasts the NBA’s best record on their floor at 25-3, though this upcoming run does include a team that is tied for the most road victories with the Mavericks, who have 19.
"That’s what we signed up for," said shooting guard Kent Bazemore said. "Thankfully, we did our work early and created a little space for ourselves. That’s no excuse to slack off any."
With 28 games to go, losing the East’s top seed would require a collapse.
Conceivably, Atlanta could play .500 the rest of the way and even if the Raptors won at their current pace (they’d go 19-9), the Hawks would still claim the home-court advantage throughout the playoffs by a game.
Not that the Hawks are thinking mediocrity after having already eclipsed last season’s 38-win total.
The pursuit of the franchise’s first division title since 1994 and its only 60-win season is about regaining consistency and getting off to a fast start after the layoff.
"It has to be this game, it can’t be the next two game or three games" Millsap said. "We have to find our rhythm early. We’ve got to get our chemistry going back early."
After the franchise-record streak, they went 3-3, culminating in an 89-88 loss at Boston, a team that has one of the league’s worst defenses. Only five clubs have given up more points a game than the Celtics’ 102.3.
"We know what we did wrong," said Millsap. "Our mental focus just wasn’t there. Now that the All-Star break is over with we’ve got newfound life."
But where the Hawks truly need a boost is on the boards, where Millsap leads the way with 7.8 per game, with Al Horford just behind him at 7.4. Those figures rank 28th and 32nd in the league, respectively.
They were outgained 305-233 in that stretch, besting only the Wizards 46-41, and allowed 56 to Boston, 55 by the Grizzlies, 52 via the Pelicans, 51 by the Warriors and 50 to the Timberwolves.
"That explains rebounding drills today," Bazemore said. "That’s definitely a priority of ours to hit the glass a little harder."
Averaging 40.9 rebounds a game (27th), the Hawks have a minus-2.7 differential. They didn’t address the area before the trade deadline, but it hasn’t hurt them that much as they’ve have been able to overcome their rebounding deficiency by shooting an NBA-best 38.9 percent on 3-pointers and 47.1 overall (third).
"That’s one area that we need work on," said Millsap, Atlanta’s top rebounder at 7.9 per game. "We don’t want to be last in rebounding. It’s kind of tough to be on top in everything. You’re going to have some weaknesses and you have some strengths. We can’t let our weaknesses hurt us though."
But Budenholzer stresses he also don’t want to overemphasize the need to get better to the point where it’s taking away from what’s been the recipe for the Hawks’ success: ball movement, shooting and defense.
"We can find ways to compete and win and be successful without making this rebounding thing into some monster," he said.