ATLANTA — The playoffs are no longer a certainty for the struggling Atlanta Hawks, whose immediate concern has shifted from postseason seeding to not being pushed out the door.
And after losing nine of their last 11, the challenge just got more difficult.
The Hawks, who have slipped to sixth in the eight-team Eastern Conference playoff standings, will play three games in four days against the conference’s top two teams. They play Boston at home on Thursday night before two games against Cleveland.
It’s a critical stretch for a team that is only one game ahead of seventh-place Chicago and two games ahead of Miami and Indiana, who are tied for eighth.
“Maybe this will be the fight that we have to put up to really get us going,” guard Kent Bazemore said after Tuesday’s practice. “We’ve got some very tough teams left, some very good opponents.”
All-Star forward Paul Millsap missed seven straight games with left knee synovitis before playing a reserve role in a 91-82 loss at the Nets on Sunday.
Coach Mike Budenholzer said Millsap “was OK, not great” against Brooklyn and had a good practice on Tuesday. Millsap said he hopes to play his normal starting role against the Celtics.
Two recent losses to Brooklyn, which has the worst record in the NBA, are not the confidence-boosting games needed for a team now preparing to face the East’s best teams.
“I think for our confidence and for our morale, we have to get these wins,” Millsap said. “We have to get out there and compete, because when we do get to the playoffs we have to be playing pretty good basketball. This is a pretty good test for us. Hopefully we just rise to the occasion.”
Millsap said the playoffs begin now for Atlanta.
“I think we’ve got to see it like that,” Millsap said. “I think we’ve got to prepare ourselves as such.”
After the back-to-back games against Cleveland on Friday and Sunday, the Hawks close the regular season with games against Charlotte and Indiana next week.
Atlanta was without three starters — Millsap, Bazemore (right knee bruise) and Thabo Sefolosha (right groin strain) for a few games. Bazemore has returned but Sefolosha may not play against Boston.
Much is on the line for Budenholzer, who as president of basketball operations made such offseason decisions as giving Bazemore a $70 million deal for four years and center Dwight Howard a three-year contract worth $70.5 million.
“This is the most enthused I’ve seen him in a long, long time,” Bazemore said of the coach. “He wants it just as much as we do. … When you see him get that rage in his eyes, it does something for you.”
Millsap smiled when told of the description of Budenholzer’s “rage” and said “I’ve seen love. It just all depends on how you look at it.”
Budenholzer was amused by his players’ differing insights into his demeanor and said: “It’s way more love. It’s a passion of love.”
The coach said he has “a great group of guys” — even if the ill-timed slump has added unwelcome drama to the close of the regular season.
“I think we were making progress in this past week and then I think Sunday was a little bit of a step back,” he said. “We want to always be making steps forward and making progress.”