Hawks clinch No. 1 seed in Eastern Conference

The road to the NBA Finals will go through Atlanta.

The Hawks are assured of the best record in the Eastern Conference. And so the dream season continues.

With a 99-86 wire-to-wire victory over the Heat, coupled with a Cavaliers loss to the Nets, the Hawks clinched the No. 1 seed in the conference Friday night at Philips Arena. It’s the first time since the 1993-94 season and the second time in Atlanta history the team will finish the regular season atop the conference standings.

“It’s something to be excited about,” Kyle Korver said. “I’m sure we’ll talk about it on the plane a little bit. We have a lot of season left. We don’t want to be satisfied.”

Korver said about five players were in the Hawks locker room when coach Mike Budenholzer stuck his head in to inform those not in the showers of the Cavaliers’ loss and offer a simple congratulations.

“We think about it some,” Korver said. “We think about it the right amount. We know we have 11 games left in the NBA season. You still want to focus on it. We are in a great position where we can try to be healthy and try to be fresh going into the first round. I think we think about it the appropriate amount.”

The Hawks (55-17, 31-5) completed a 4-0 season sweep and have won six straight games over the Heat. The Hawks had not swept the Heat in a season series since 1990-91.

DeMarre Carroll led the Hawks with a game-high 24 points, two shy of his season and career high. It was the seventh straight game the forward has scored in double figures. Paul Millsap added 21 points. Dennis Schroder, starting in place of the injured Jeff Teague, had his fourth double-double of the season with 12 points and 11 assists.

The Hawks led by as many as 26 points and only let the Heat close the gap with a 10-point fourth quarter. But by then, however, the outcome had been decided.

“I think it’s a credit to our players and all the good work they’ve done all year,” Budenholzer said. “Obviously, I’m proud of what they’ve done. Our focus is that there is a lot more to be done. It’s something they deserve credit for and to feel good about.”

The Heat (33-39) were led by Luol Deng with 17 points. Dwyane Wade was held to 13 points on 5 of 13 shooting.

The Hawks led by as many as 10 points in the first quarter, 18 in the second quarter and 26 in the third quarter. In the third quarter, the Hawks shot 82.4 percent (14 of 17) from the field. Carroll had 19 and Millsap had 11 first-half points.

“It’s a great accomplishment,” Millsap said of the No. 1 seed. “We have to celebrate our accomplishments. It’s big. It’s been a good year for us. The way we fought through it. The ways guys came to work every day and tried to get better. It’s a major accomplishment.”

Earning the top seed in the Eastern Conference is just the latest in a string of achievements that have marked this season for the Hawks. They already had earned their eighth straight trip to the playoffs, won the Southeast Division, had a franchise-record 19-game win streak (longest in Atlanta pro sports history) and set a record for road victories. About the only mark that remains is the franchise record of 57 wins in a season.

“The most important thing for us right now is to play like we are still chasing something,” Kent Bazemore said. “It’s a bad time to relax. You never know who you are going to face in the first round. Teams are going to be hungry. Target has gotten even bigger. Right now, we need to keep doing what we are doing, acknowledge it and move on because we are just starting to pick it back up and get back to our brand. It’s a bad time to relax.”

Wade knows a thing or two about being a title contender as he has been part of three Heat championships. He was asked if the Hawks are a title contender.

“They’re a good team,” Wade said. “I haven’t seen them in a playoff atmosphere together, so I don’t know if they’re a contender tor not. But as far as the regular season, they’re a good team. There’s just no way around it. Everything else is left to be seen.”

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