With just six games remaining in the NBA regular season, the Atlanta Hawks find themselves still alive and fighting for the fourth seed in the playoffs with the Brooklyn Nets and the Chicago Bulls. But these two teams will not be the ones who will ultimately decide the Hawks fate down the stretch. That honor goes to none other than the Philadelphia 76ers who Atlanta battles tonight at the Highlight Factory and again next Wednesday in the City of Brotherly Love.
Yes, Atlanta has clinched a playoff spot and if the post-season started today they would be squared up with the Indiana Pacers. That is a tough match-up for the Hawks, who somehow have pieced together the right wins at the right time to make the playoffs for the sixth-straight season, so the team knows the margin for error down the stretch is slim when it comes to wins and losses.
Besides the two games with Philly, Atlanta travels to take on the San Antonio Spurs tomorrow followed by the game at the Sixers before returning home to host the current eighth-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and the Toronto Raptors. The Hawks will end the season on the road at Madison Square Garden against the second-seeded New York Knicks.
So with that schedule the 76ers have to be a pair of games Atlanta can rest some starters and take a breath. Right?
Far from it.
Sure these are a two games on paper the Hawks should win easily. But, when it comes to the rivalry between the cities of Atlanta and Philadelphia in professional sports, trust this guy when he says this is going to be the two toughest games Al Horford and his teammates will have had all season.
And with the disappointing year Philadelphia has had with the experiment turned bust with the paper mache body and mind that is Andrew Bynum, the Sixers would love nothing more than to put a silver stamp on the season with a pair of wins against Atlanta.
Plus, if you are a fan of the Hawks, you know these two games just smell like let downs. Games where Josh Smith is jacking up threes and the defense makes Thaddeous Young look like the second coming of Moses Malone.
If Atlanta wants to be serious about the playoffs and building a future contender, it starts tonight. If Smith wants the hoops world to take him seriously about being a max contract guy, it starts tonight. And if the Hawks wants that fourth-seed, it starts tonight.
M Shannon Smallwood is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the US Basketball Writers Association.
Follow him @woodysmalls.