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Hawks search for beautiful destination at end of rocky path

The Hawks are going down a dark path.

They have lost seven straight games, a skid that has come at the wrong time with just nine contests remaining in the regular season. A playoff berth and positioning are on the line.

The slumping team will again be without three starters — Paul Millsap, Kent Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha — when they host the Suns on Tuesday, the second straight game they will be so severely short-handed.

There may be some good news on the horizon. Bazemore, who has missed four straight games with a right knee bone bruise, is close to a return. The starting shooting guard may be back as soon as Wednesday’s game at the 76ers. Bazemore wrote a message to his teammates on the whiteboard Monday morning before the team gathered for practice.

“All terrible roads lead to beautiful destinations,” Bazemore said he wrote.

Millsap missed his fifth straight game with left knee tightness when the Hawks lost to the Nets 107-92 on Sunday. Sefolosha will miss a second game with a right groin strain after being a late scratch against the Nets. The Hawks did not hold a contact practice Monday while Sefolosha spent time on a treadmill. There was no indication as to when Millsap or Sefolosha could return.

Entering Monday’s NBA schedule, the Hawks were fifth in the Eastern Conference standings. They have the same 37-36 record as the Bucks and Pacers but currently own tiebreakers over both. The trio is just two games ahead of the Heat for the eighth. The Bulls are just a half-game and the Pistons are just one game out of the eighth and final playoff spot.

“The NBA isn’t easy,” said Dennis Schroder, one of the team’s two healthy starters along with Dwight Howard. “You have to win games to make it to the playoffs. I think we are in good shape. Everybody is competing. When everybody else comes back, we are going to be in good shape. … Now, we have to change something, too. We can’t wait until they come back. Maybe it’s too late then. We have to figure it out with our group now and then when they come back, we’ll be even stronger.”

Millsap and Bazemore have been sending words of encouragement to teammates during their absence that including a three-game road trip while they remained in Atlanta. The two sent text messages, including one to Schroder during halftime of the team’s loss at the Bucks last week.

Much of the focus on the injury-plagued team has been on Schroder, who said he has spoken to coach Mike Budenholzer about what he needs to do to make himself and the team better during these difficult circumstances. The team spent much of practice on Monday watching video to fix mistakes. Losses at the Wizards and Bucks have come by a combined seven points.

“Being short-handed, we have to be more ourselves than we ever are,” Budenholzer said. “I think it’s human nature that you either pull away or try to do things differently. Really, the reverse is what you should do. Our competitiveness has to come out in the right way on both ends of the court.

“Defensively, we have to be more active, more willing to cover for a teammate, more committed to rebound, more committed to scrambling. Offensively, more committed to ball movement, more committed to everybody being involved. It’s one of those things where it’s easy to talk about, easy to say, and you see film where we are not as good in all those areas where we need to be.”

The Hawks will use the same lineup it has with starters out. Ersan Ilyasova will replace Millsap, Tim Hardaway Jr. will replace Bazemore and Taurean Prince will get his second NBA start in place of Sefolosha.

“Those are my guys,” Bazemore said of the healthy Hawks. “They are doing everything they can to win games. They are playing hard. The effort is there. We are just down guys right now. That was my message: Keep your eyes on the prize and continue to grind.”

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