As Joe Johnson told Atlanta Journal-Constitution Hawks beat writer Chris Vivlamore following the Hawks' 116-84 victory over the Detroit Pistons Wednesday, "We control our own destiny. We just have to win out and everything else will take care of itself."
This is true, as the Hawks remain one game ahead of the Boston Celtics in the loss column. The Hawks must finish with a better record than the Celtics to win home court advantage in the first round since Boston owns the tie-break, having won the season series.
So, as Joe said, the Hawks just need to win out. Easier said than done. The Hawks finish the season with 4 home games against teams that have clinched playoff berths. Starting with tonight's matchup against possible first round opponent the Celtics, the Hawks close the season against the Knicks on Sunday, The L.A. Clippers on Tuesday and the defending-champion Mavericks on Thursday.
Should the Hawks fail to secure home court advantage, they may come to regret their failure to show up against the Toronto Raptors on Sunday. Meanwhile, Orlando remains a game behind the Hawks and will have a hard time overtaking them for the 5th seed. The Magic, after news of Dwight Howard's season-ending back surgery, face road games against Utah, Denver and Memphis (all in playoff position) with a single home game against Charlotte.
Thus, tonights game at Phillips Arena against the Celtics has a reasonable probability of being a preivew of the Hawks' first round playoff series. A win tonight would put the Hawks two games ahead of the Celtics in the loss column, allowing a slightly greater margin for error. In that scenario, the Hawks would need to go 2-1 against their remaining opponents to finish with a better record than the Celtics.
Elsewhere in the Eastern Conference, the Miami Heat's 83-72 win over the Chicago Bulls Thursday night has tightened the race for the top seed. Chicago remains a game up in the loss column, but if the teams finish with identical records, the tie break could be interesting. The teams split four regular season games and both won division titles, eliminating two potential tie break scenarios. The third tie break would be winning percentage against Eastern Conference teams (Chicago is currently 36-10, Miami 35-10), followed by winning percentage against playoff teams from the Eastern Conference, then the Western Conference. The final tie break would be net points from all games played.
The significance for the Hawks of the tight race for the top playoff seed in the conference is that the Celtics will play a motivated Heat squad Tuesday after facing the Hawks. A loss to the Heat by the Celtics would provide the Hawks with additional margin for error.