The Atlanta Hawks seem inspired as they chase their first playoff berth in nine years behind a pair of veteran leaders.
The same can’t be said of the bumbling and bickering Chicago Bulls.
The Hawks will look to strengthen their hold on the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference on Tuesday when they visit Chicago, where they’ve lost six straight games.
The Bulls, who are three games behind the Hawks in the East, are one of three teams chasing Atlanta - a task which will be difficult if the Hawks (30-39) continue their current surge.
Atlanta, which last reached the playoffs during the 1998-99 season, has won four of its last five games, including Saturday’s 98-90 victory over Orlando. The Hawks are averaging 109.2 points over those five contests, which is more than 12 points higher than their season average.
They even won two out of three games on a recent road trip after having lost 13 of their previous 14 road contests.
On Saturday, Atlanta outscored Orlando 35-23 in the fourth quarter, as Joe Johnson finished with 34 points and seven assists while point guard Mike Bibby added 20 points and eight assists. Johnson has been especially impressive recently, averaging 28 points in his last 11 games.
“Joe refused to let us lose, he and Bibby both,” Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. “I wanted to rest both of them, but it’s time now. We just have to keep pushing and scraping and scratching to do whatever we can to win games. You can’t afford to lose now.”
That’s even more true of the Bulls, who will likely have to win at least one of their two games against the Hawks this week to remain realistically in the race.
The teams face off on Friday in Atlanta, where the Bulls lost 105-84 on Jan. 13 - a game in which Johnson had 37 points - ending their 12-game winning streak against the Hawks. Atlanta hasn’t won at the United Center since April 9, 2004.
Lately, the Bulls (27-42) have been struggling everywhere. They’ve lost four of five overall and their last two at home, including Saturday’s 108-101 defeat to Indiana, which is also in contention for the final playoff spot.
“It was a big setback for us. We still have games to play. We still have games against teams we are competing against,” interim coach Jim Boylan said. “The season is not over for us. There is no one cashing it in, no one quitting. We need to continue to work. We can still work our way back into this thing.”
There were, however, some problems on the Bulls bench against Indiana. Boylan benched Andres Nocioni after the forward - who had played less than three minutes - yelled at the coach. Nocioni later apologized.
Despite 28 points from Luol Deng, the Bulls went on to blow another fourth-quarter lead, as they were outscored 35-17 in the final period. Chicago also led in recent fourth quarters against New Orleans and Philadelphia, but was outscored by a combined 73-33 in the final periods of two losses.
“We just can’t hold onto a lead right now,” point guard Kirk Hinrich said. “It just seems like every time we get a lead it’s like clockwork. We stop doing the things that got us the lead.”