Hawks face tough challege in western trip

It’s a daunting task.

The big picture shows the Hawks, losers of nine of 10 games, on a five-game western trip that features four teams in playoff position. The trip begins Sunday in Phoenix, and the opener shows the glaring differences between the NBA’s two conferences. The Hawks are eighth in the East at 26-31. The Suns are eighth in the West at 34-24. The Hawks will then face the Trail Blazers (third, 40-18), Warriors (sixth, 36-23) and Clippers (fourth, 40-20). Only the final game of the 10-day trip features a below-.500 team in the Jazz (21-37).

The Hawks are sticking by their season-long mantra: Take it one game at a time.

“We don’t talk about the five games or the trip,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “We just take it game by game, practice by practice. We are much more focused on what we are doing and in cases what we are not doing and what we need to be doing. I think if you keep your focus a little more on yourself and how you are competing and improving, it can help you get through a hard stretch or tough road trip.”

The injury-depleted Hawks began their current slide third in the East. Entering Saturday’s NBA schedule they held a 3 1/2-game lead over the Cavaliers and Pistons for the final playoff spot with 25 games remaining in the regular season. The Hawks have lost three players — Al Horford, John Jenkins and Gustavo Ayon — to season-ending surgeries. The thinned frontcourt ranks have All-Star Paul Millsap and Pero Antic on the mend.

“I think our biggest thing is going out there and competing, trying to take the fight to every team we play and see what happens,” said DeMarre Carroll, who was seen time at center and at power forward during center Elton Brand’s brief rests. “Our record is not too good on the road, but we have to look at this like maybe we get Paul and Pero back on the road trip and try to steal something on the road.

“We are a really good team, especially when we are healthy. Even when we are not healthy, we are staying in games and have an opportunity to win. We are just not getting it done. Nobody on this team lacks confidence.”

While the Hawks are on their trip:

  • The Pistons play at the Rockets, vs. the Knicks, vs. the Bulls, at the Timberwolves and at the Celtics.
  • The Cavaliers play at the Grizzlies, vs. the Spurs, at the Bobcats and vs. the Knicks.

Budenholzer said the Hawks’ defense has been at the center of the recent slump. He acknowledged that some of the woes can be contributed to a depleted lineup and having players out of position and faced with height disadvantages.

The first-year coach said that while the Hawks have not gotten the desired results, there are reasons to be encouraged.

He pointed to the play of point guard Jeff Teague the past three games. Teague has been aggressive in getting into the paint and has averaged 26.7 points with a .540 field-goal percentage (27-of-50), a.667 3-point percentage (4-of-6) and a .846 free-throw percentage (22-of-26). Other tangible reasons for encouragement have been the way the team played in the close loss to the Bulls, who have the NBA’s best record since Jan. 1, better ball movement that has led to good shooting percentages and the continued development of Mike Scott and Shelvin Mack.

“We get a chance to play a lot of good teams,” Budenholzer said. “That is exciting to us as opposed to daunting. I think our guys have competed well against the best teams. That is what we expect going on this trip.”

Injury update: Antic participated in 5-on-5 half-court scrimmages Friday as he nears a return from a stress fracture in his right ankle that has cost him 16 games. His status has been updated to day-to-day. Budenholzer said the team would see how Antic reacted to Saturday’s practice and Sunday’s shoot-around.

“Definitely, getting close,” Antic said. “I’ve started practicing with the team. I’m feeling good. There is soreness in the ankle, but the medical staff will say when I can play. I’m happy that I’ve started to play with the team on the court and not to be bored in the weight room by myself, on the court by myself.”