It will be the Pacers.
The Hawks went down to the final day of the regular-season to determine their first-round playoff opponent. They will play the Pacers after slipping to the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference with two straight losses, the final being a 98-92 defeat to the Knicks Wednesday at Madison Square Garden. Game 1 will be Sunday.
The Hawks limp into the postseason, in a manner of speaking, so they won’t limp in the postseason. For the second consecutive game, coach Larry Drew opted to rest his regulars. Al Horford, Josh Smith, Jeff Teague, Devin Harris, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver, a group that went 11-5 this season as a starting unit, did not play. Many in the blogosphere accused the Hawks of “tanking” the final two games. However, coach Larry Drew insisted he wanted to give players with nagging injuries extra time to heal and prevent additional issues.
“That is always a fear,” Drew said of injuries. “You go through a whole season and you get to a point and it becomes a roll of the dice. Do you play a guy or don’t you? Do you take a chance of somebody getting hurt or don’t you? … We as coaches make decisions and we have to live with them. If things happen, we have to deal with the consequences.
“Believe me, I had my fingers crossed as well about losing one of my guys.”
Drew got a first-hand look at what he was determined to avoid when Knicks Pablo Prigioni left with a sprained right ankle in the first quarter. X-rays were negative but he did not return. The guard appeared in 78 games this season, including 18 starts. Iman Shumpert left in the fourth quarter after hurting his right knee. Even official Courtney Kirkland went down with a knee injury in the fourth quarter. He was helped off the court and the game continued with two referees.
The Hawks result did not matter as the Bulls defeated the Wizards, 95-92, Wednesday to grab the fifth seed and a first-round playoff matchup with the Nets. The Bulls finished a game ahead of the Hawks, who had a one-game lead with two to play before the final defeats.
The Hawks (44-38) will start at the Pacers Sunday at a yet to be announced time. The teams split their four regular-season meetings, each winning both home games.
“Now we know what we need to focus on and who we need to focus on and move forward,” Anthony Tolliver said. “… As soon as we came in (the locker room, Drew) already started talking about them and what we are going to do to prepare for (the Pacers). Now we have to start our second season.”
Mike Scott had his second straight double-double to lead the Hawks with 23 points and 14 rebounds. John Jenkins added 20 points but was 0-of-6 from 3-point range. As a team the Hawks hit just 2 of 21 3-pointers.
The Knicks (54-28) also rested several starters including the NBA’s leading scorer Carmelo Anthony. They have won four straight over the Hawks. The Knicks, the second seed in the East, will meet the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. That series will begin Saturday at 3 p.m. on ABC.
Rookie Chris Copeland did his best Anthony impression and poured in a game- and career- high 33 points to lead the Knicks. James White finished with a career-high 20 points and Shumpert added 18 points.
The Knicks led 45-39 at halftime. The led by as many as 12 points in the first two quarters and opened a double-digit lead less than seven minutes into the game. The Hawks used a 10-0 run to get back in the game and tied the game, 37-37, on a 3-pointer by Tolliver. However, the Knicks took the advantage into the intermission as Copeland scored their final 12 points of the half. The forward scored the first two baskets of the second half and the Knicks had another double-digit lead.
The Tolliver 3-pointer was the only long-range basket by the Hawks in 13 attempts in the first half.
“It’s a big relief,” Drew said of finally knowing the playoff opponent. “It coming down to the last game of the season makes it a little tough. Now that we know who our opponent is going to be we can really hone in on them.”