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Hawks inch closer to locking up No. 4 seed
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MILWAUKEE — The Atlanta Hawks’ recent string of losses to playoff contenders was understandable, if not particularly convenient.

But with the Hawks scrambling to secure the No. 4 playoff seed in the Eastern Conference, a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks would have been much harder to explain. Joe Johnson stepped in took care of the potential problem.

Johnson scored 30 points and hit a pair of big shots in the final minute of the game, stopping a late Milwaukee rally and nailing down a 113-105 victory Wednesday night.

“Every game is big from here on out for us,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to close out and get that fourth spot.”

Earning home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs was a goal the Hawks established coming into the season — and a potentially significant boost for one of the NBA’s best home teams.

But wrapping it up hasn’t been easy, thanks to the three-game losing streak they snapped with a win at Toronto one night earlier.

“We’re playing for something, man,” Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. “These guys know what’s at stake in terms of this fourth spot.”

Meanwhile, it’s more of the same for the Bucks, who have frittered away their own shot at the playoffs by going 1-9 since the emotional high of a Mar. 15 victory over Boston.

Milwaukee has lost four straight, but hasn’t been getting blown out of late. Instead, they’re playing just badly enough in spurts to lose.

And it’s getting old for Bucks coach Scott Skiles, who wasn’t inclined to gush about his team’s late fourth-quarter rally. Not on a night where the Bucks gave up 113 points and allowed yet another opponent to shoot over 50 percent.

Are they putting out an acceptable level of effort?

“The answer is, we’re not,” Skiles said.

Is there a danger of players mentally checking out with the playoffs out of the picture?

“Are they getting their checks every two weeks?,” Skiles asked rhetorically. “OK.”

Milwaukee held a nine-point halftime lead after shooting 61.5 percent in the first half — then shot 4-for-21 in the third quarter while allowing Atlanta to score 31 points and retake the lead.

“There were three quarters where we did what we were supposed to, and there was one that we didn’t,” Richard Jefferson said. “That one quarter cost us the game.”

Atlanta led by 10 to begin the fourth quarter, but Milwaukee used a late 13-3 run to cut the Hawks’ lead to two on a driving layup by Ramon Sessions with 3:14 left in the game.

Bucks rookie Luc Richard Mbah a Moute then tied the game on a pair of free throws with 1:51 left. But Mike Bibby answered with a 3-pointer, Sessions turned the ball over and Johnson made a layup to put Atlanta up 107-102 with 55.2 seconds left.

Keith Bogans made a putback layup for Milwaukee, but Johnson hit a fadeaway jumper to seal the game with 17.5 seconds left.

“He was huge,” Woodson said. “Coming off 25 last night, he was solid last night and it was a carryover to tonight’s game. He made two to three big shots coming down the stretch run. We expect that from Joe.”

Johnson’s shots bailed the Hawks out of their latest in a string of shaky performances. Atlanta’s recent three-game skid was to Orlando, Boston and Philadelphia.

The Hawks’ struggles continued in the first half against Milwaukee, but Atlanta used 3-point shooting to take control in the third quarter.

Atlanta rallied to tie the game at 67 with a 3-pointer by Maurice Evans at the 7:30 mark and later taking a 74-69 lead on back-to-back 3-pointers by Bibby and Evans.

Johnson then hit 3s on back-to-back possessions later in the quarter, giving the Hawks an 80-71 lead, and Atlanta went into the fourth quarter leading by 10.

Bibby finished with 22 points and Josh Smith added 21 points and 7 rebounds for Atlanta. Bogans had 22 points and Jefferson added 19 for Milwaukee.

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