NEW YORK — In control of their fate, the Hawks headed home for a game that could serve as both a potential postseason clincher and a possible playoff preview.
Yes, the NBA’s longest postseason drought could end today.
Joe Johnson kept the Hawks in control of the race for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, scoring 34 points Friday night in a 116-104 victory over the New York Knicks.
Trying to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1999, the Hawks remained two games ahead of the Indiana Pacers with three to play for each team. Atlanta trimmed its magic number to two.
Johnson, along with Mike Bibby the only Hawks players with playoff experience from when he played for Phoenix, said the postseason is on his mind.
"It definitely wanders with me. I can only imagine how Philips Arena would be rocking if we were to make the playoffs," he said. "Those are the type of imaginations that I have and hopefully if we everybody stays on the same page we can make that happen."
Atlanta plays host to Boston today and could clinch a playoff spot with a victory, and a loss by the Pacers to Charlotte. The Hawks, usually long out of the postseason race by now, are expecting a big crowd at Philips Arena for the Celtics, who will be the No. 1 seed.
"I think it’s going to be a lot of hype around this game," forward Josh Smith said. "So we’ve just got to come out and keep our emotions down and understand that it’s a game that we need to win, and we’ve got to come out and try to get it."
Smith and Bibby added 24 points apiece for the Hawks, who won all four meetings with the Knicks this season, sweeping the series for the first time since moving to Atlanta for the 1968-69 season. Al Horford finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds.
Atlanta was in control most of the way, though the Knicks cut what was a 21-point deficit to 96-91 on Quentin Richardson’s 3-pointer with 6:43 remaining in the game. The Hawks quickly scored six straight, with Johnson’s jumper restoring a double-digit lead, and weren’t threatened again.
Jamal Crawford scored 20 points for the Knicks, who were trying for their first four-game winning streak of the season. New York still hasn’t won more than three in a row since a six-game winning streak from Jan. 2-13, 2006.
The Knicks fell to 23-57 and still need one more victory to avoid tying the franchise record of 59 losses, which they matched just two years ago during Larry Brown’s only season. Donnie Walsh attended his second game since becoming Knicks president, getting another look at a team that will need some changes.
"I’ve been here since bad times and I would love to be here in good times," Crawford said. "You try to stay patient and stay professional as possible. On the other side of that, you can’t really worry about stuff you can’t control. If they think it’s best to make some major moves, they have to do that."
Wilson Chandler added 18 points and Zach Randolph had 17 for the Knicks, who outrebounded Atlanta 49-35 but allowed the Hawks to shoot 55 percent from the field. Chandler is averaging 18 points in his last four games.
"Personally I feel good," he said, "but from a team standpoint we’re not winning so it’s kind of tough to be happy all the time."
The Hawks made 14 of 21 shots in the first quarter, building a 34-23 lead behind 16 points from Johnson. The lead ballooned to 21 on Horford’s three-point play with 5:01 left in the first half, and Atlanta led 62-43 at the break.Notes: The Knicks ended Atlanta’s last postseason run, sweeping the Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals. ... Smith was hit with a delay of game technical foul in the third quarter, then appeared to have words with assistant coach David Fizdale when he was taken out moments later.