The Hawks have one game remaining in the regular season — but they have already turned their attention to the playoffs.
The Wizards await in an Eastern Conference first-round playoff series between division rivals. The series will begin either Saturday or Sunday in Washington. The Hawks clinched the No. 5 seed with a 103-76 win over the Hornets on Tuesday. All that is left is a relatively meaningless game at the Pacers. Meaningless for the Hawks. The Pacers are still fighting for one of two final playoff spots.
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said following the win over the Hornets that the team will “dig into (the Wizards) maybe starting tonight or tomorrow.”
The Hawks enter the series brimming with confidence. A playoff spot was in jeopardy last week. However, the Hawks rolled off four consecutive wins, including over the top two seeds in the conference in the Celtics and the Cavaliers twice.
“I think we can beat everybody who comes in our way now,” Dennis Schroder said Tuesday. “We’ve just got to play how we play and we are going to be in a good spot.
“I’ve said before, we just got to get everybody back and we are a dangerous team. We can beat everybody we want if we are doing the things right. Now, everybody is back and we’ll try to keep improving game by game. We’ll be ready for the playoffs.”
The Wizards present problems with a dynamic backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal. The Hawks won the first meeting between the teams, 114-99 to open the season. The Wizards won the final three games in the series, including a 104-100 win March 22 in Washington as the Hawks played without the injured Paul Millsap and Kent Bazemore.
The Hawks are healthy again. Millsap (eight games) and Bazemore (five games) are back. Thabo Sefolosha (eight games) returned in Tuesday’s win.
“Even if it takes up to the 82nd game, with four minutes left, to figure it out,” Bazemore said of a Hawks season that can be described as up and down. “The regular season is 82 games for a reason. You have all those games to get ready. It just so happened it was Game 77 and the switch clicked. We haven’t looked back since.”
In the four regular-season games, Wall averaged 18.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists. Beal averaged 21.0 points, 3.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists. Wall missed Game Nos. 2, 3 and 4 in the second-round playoff series between the teams two years ago. The Hawks won in six games.
“Great point guard (John Wall). Great shooting guard (Bradley Beal),” Tim Hardaway Jr. said. “Great role guys coming off the bench. (Marcin) Gortat is going to do all the dirty work. (Markieff Morris) is going to do his thing. We have to go out there and match their mentality, match their effort, on both ends of the floor. We’ve got to contain them and hope Bradley doesn’t get hot like he normally does hitting all these contested shots because they feed off of that.”
So, the Hawks will play their final regular-season game Wednesday night before making a full commitment to the Wizards. They know it won’t be easy.
“We are definitely playing better,” Sefolosha said. “It’s going to be a tough battle but I think we are all ready. We understand now that if we share the ball and the defense is usually pretty good, that is the key for us.”