Hawks-76ers Preview

The Associated Press

While the Atlanta Hawks have won each game since Al Horford's demoralizing injury, their schedule hasn't been particularly intimidating.

They'll likely receive a much stiffer test with a trip to Philadelphia.

In a meeting of division leaders, the Hawks look to win their fifth straight Friday night against a 76ers team trying to bounce back from its first home loss.

Since Horford tore his left pectoral muscle in a 96-84 loss in Indiana last Wednesday, an injury that will keep him out for most - if not the rest - of the season, Atlanta (11-4) has rallied to win four consecutive games.

It's a little hard to gauge Atlanta's status without its All-Star center, however, because all four games were at home and three were against teams with sub-.500 records. The Hawks' lone victory over a winning team came Wednesday, 92-89 over struggling Portland.

Joe Johnson had 24 points and came up with a big steal with just over a minute left to send the Trail Blazers to a fourth defeat in five games.

Johnson's play has been one of the biggest reasons Atlanta is undefeated since Horford went down. He is averaging 24.8 points and 5.5 assists in the last four games after averaging 16.7 and 3.4 in the first 11.

"Everybody really made a conscious effort to step their play up," Johnson said. "There's an understanding that without Al, we're missing a big piece of what we do here. Everybody has really focused in a lot more and really stepped their game up."

Josh Smith has also made giant strides during the winning streak, averaging 20.8 points on 54.9 percent shooting and 11.8 rebounds. He averaged 15.8 points, shot 49.0 percent and grabbed 8.5 boards per game to start the season.

"I didn't know how we were going to fare without (Horford) because he does so much for this ballclub," Smith said. "I think we were able to answer the bell."

While the Southeast Division-leading Hawks are brimming with confidence, a win in Philadelphia would likely give a better idea of whether they are for real.

Atlanta split four games with the Sixers last season, with Horford's play affecting the outcomes. He combined for 35 points and 25 rebounds in the victories but sat out one loss with a bruised back and finished with eight points on 4-of-12 shooting and nine boards in the other.

The Atlantic Division-leading 76ers (10-4) are coming off Wednesday's 108-104 overtime loss to Denver, their first setback in seven games at the Wells Fargo Center. Andre Iguodala, who finished with 11 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists, had a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter but made 1 of 2 free throws with four seconds remaining.

It was a tough loss for Philadelphia, which squandered a 14-point lead to fall for just the second time in 11 games.

"We have to keep that mindset the entire game," said Elton Brand, averaging 10.3 points. "We can't become satisfied with a 14-point lead. We got to keep mashing and get up 20."

Brand is one of seven players with scoring averages in double digits for Philadelphia, which can attribute some of its success to its unselfish play. Reserve Louis Williams is averaging a team-best 15.7 points and starting point guard Jrue Holiday is scoring 14.9 per game.

The Sixers are also winning behind a stingy defense that is allowing an average of 87.4 points, second-best in the league. Prior to struggling against the high-powered Nuggets, Philadelphia had allowed an average of 82.4 points in its previous 10 games.

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