Friday May 27th, 2016 12:36PM

Despite struggles, Hawks cling to 8th playoff spot

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA -- Kyle Korver checks out the NBA standings every morning.

He knows how close the Atlanta Hawks are cutting it just to make the playoffs.

"I know who's playing who, I know who they're playing next," the Hawks guard said. "We're supposed to focus on ourselves, but I looking at everything."

After a miserable couple of months, the Hawks are barely clinging to the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, one game ahead of the New York Knicks with nine games left in the regular season.

"The eighth playoff spot is ours right now," Korver said. "We have to keep on playing like it is."

The remaining schedule certainly favors the Hawks (32-41).

They have played two fewer games than the Knicks (32-43) and still have contests against lightweight teams such as Cleveland (30-45), Detroit (27-47), Boston (23-51) and Milwaukee (14-60). Also, Atlanta plays six of its last nine at Philips Arena, where the team is 21-14 this season despite drawing some of the league's smallest crowds.

New York, on the other hand, plays nothing but above-.500 teams the rest of the way, with four of its last seven games at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks' remaining opponents have a cumulative winning percentage of .571 heading into Tuesday's play, compared with .472 for Atlanta's.

Still, given all the struggles the Hawks have endured - losing 20 of their last 27 games - no one is taking anything for granted.

"We all know what's on the line," Korver said.

Atlanta is in the midst of a major rebuilding job under general manager Danny Ferry and rookie coach Mike Budenholzer - a task that didn't get any easier when the team's best player, center Al Horford, went down with a season-ending injury the day after Christmas.

Even without Horford, the Hawks were still playing surprisingly well at the beginning of February, climbing four games over .500 and in the mix for home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs.

That's when the injuries really began to pile up. Horford's replacement, Pero Antic, missed 17 games with a stress fracture in his right ankle. His replacement, Gustavo Ayon, was also lost for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery. All-Star forward Paul Millsap missed five games with a right knee contusion. And Korver, the team's best outside threat, sat out six straight games with a bad back before returning Monday night, desperate to help the Hawks turn things around.

They did, even after falling behind by 14 points early on against the lowly Philadelphia 76ers, who had just broken a record-tying 26-game losing streak. The Hawks rallied to win 103-95, snapping a six-game skid of their own.

"If we had lost this game, it would have been tough," Korver said. "We didn't play great, but we played harder, we played with a purpose."

Budenholzer has been coaching with a purpose, too, benching double-figure scorer Lou Williams for two weeks even though his skills were clearly needed on the court.

The message resonated with the team, and Williams has played with more effort since returning to the rotation. He scored 22 points in the win over the 76ers, his best showing since late December.

"You can't take your opportunities for granted," teammate DeMarre Carroll said. "I give coach credit for doing that."

The Hawks might be better off missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007, considering they will surely have to face either two-time defending champ Miami or Indiana in the opening round.

Given their slim odds of knocking off either of those powerhouses, there are surely some Atlanta fans pulling for the team to slide into the lottery of a potentially deep draft.

But Budenholzer and his players aren't ready to give up on this season.

"We've got to suck it up now," Carroll said. "We're trying to make the playoffs."
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