Three Hits: Hawks halt Heat, clinch No. 8 seed in East playoffs

On April 2, just 10 days ago, the Hawks suffered a gut-wrenching home defeat to the Bulls, a loss that momentarily dropped Atlanta below the New York Knicks (34-45) for the eighth and final playoff slot in the Eastern Conference.

Morale must have been pretty low then, with the Hawks seemingly squandering a once-academic postseason spot to the Knicks — one of the NBA’s most sporadic clubs.

But Atlanta pulled things together over the next four nights, sprinting past Cleveland at home (117-98) and then crushing Indiana on the road — the infamous game where the Pacers mustered only 23 first-half points and trailed by 33 at the break.

Throw in a pair of victories against playoff locks on back-to-back nights (Brooklyn, Miami) … and it’s funny how quickly the Hawks-Knicks battle fizzled in NBA circles.

"We’ve had a pretty interesting week … guys have been healthy of late, and we’re starting to click again," said Hawks forward Kyle Korver, who holds the NBA record for most consecutive games with at least one three-pointer (127).

Korver (one triple on Saturday) was also excited about the Hawks’ defensive effort in the second half, limiting the explosive Heat to just 36 points. His coach took pride in that stingy occurrence, as well.

"I’m just happy that we get to play more games, and that I get more chances to talk (to the media) about ‘improving’ and ‘getting better,’" said Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer, with a hint of dry sarcasm.

Safely in the playoff clubhouse at 37-43, Atlanta can now rest up over the final two regular-season games, knowing the real deal starts next Saturday or Sunday … when the club opens on the road for Games 1 and 2 (against Miami or Indiana).

"I’ve been (in the playoffs) every year of my career," said guard Jeff Teague (25 points, three assists, four rebounds, four steals vs. Miami). "I’m just excited for my teammates."

The fans and owners should be happy, as well, since the Hawks stand to benefit more from playoff experience (one round, two rounds, etc.) than playing the "lottery" roulette wheel:

**No owner has ever pooh-pooed a playoff appearance, especially in the best-of-seven series format. At the very least, that’s two playoff games (3 and 4) of unshared revenue (ticket sales, concessions, parking, TV money).

And if the Hawks could stretch out the East quarterfinals to six games (or advance to the next round) … that’s three-plus revenue outings for the owners.

OK, so Williams’ last two baskets — a 26-footer with the shot clock winding down and a no-pressure 24-footer on Atlanta’s final possession — came during the proverbial "garbage time," after Miami had waved the white flag.

But here’s the rub: Prior to Saturday’s effort, Williams had averaged only nine points in his last four games. Bottom line: It’ll be interesting to see if the Heat or Pacers target him defensively throughout a sustained playoff series.

Think of all the time national TV networks and pundits (Fox Sports included) wasted on the supposed magnitude of Miami’s 98-86 home win over Indiana on Friday — as if that game exclusively determined the No. 1 seed for the East playoffs.

For the month of April, spanning seven games, Teague has averaged 21 points and six assists. Of equal importance, the Hawks guard has shot 50 percent or higher from the field for every April contest.

"(Making the playoffs) is big. We worked so hard to get into this position," said Teague, who averaged 25.5 points against the Heat at home this season … but only 5.6 points in Miami (two games at each venue).

Quite frankly, Atlanta cannot win a playoff series against Miami or Indiana without Teague running on peak power. He’s simply too valuable to the Hawks’ upset cause to play a secondary role in something of that magnitude.

"Man, we’re not a (playoff-viable team) unless Jeff is being aggressive like that," said Korver, while extending the highest of compliments to his hard-charging teammate. "We’re going to need him down the stretch."