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Hawks clinch 5th seed in Eastern Conference with win over Hornets

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ATLANTA (AP) After a maddening, up-and-down season, the Atlanta Hawks seem to be getting hot at just the right time.

Playoff time.

Dwight Howard had 19 points and 12 rebounds as the resurgent Hawks won their fourth straight game, routing the listless Charlotte Hornets 103-76 on Tuesday night to wrap up the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Hawks will face the Washington Wizards in the opening round of the postseason.

“We think we can beat anybody that’s coming our way,” guard Dennis Schroder said. “We’ve still got to get better, but we’re heading in the right direction for sure.”

A week ago, Atlanta’s playoff hopes were in jeopardy after a dismal stretch that included two losses to Brooklyn, the worst team in the NBA.

Then, in a sudden turnaround that epitomized the team’s inconsistent play all season, the Hawks knocked off East-leading Boston and recorded two straight stunning victories over the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers, including Sunday’s comeback from a 26-point deficit .

This one was never in doubt. Charlotte played its regular-season finale already eliminated from the playoffs and without its best player, Kemba Walker.

It showed.

Atlanta raced out to a 63-44 lead by halftime, shooting 71 percent (24 of 34) over the first two quarters.

“There was a lot of good stuff at both ends of the court,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said, before adding a word of caution . “We’ve been here before. We’ve got to stay hungry, stay edgy. The last four or five games, it’s been a simple message: compete and play together.

All 13 players scored for the Hawks, who were able to rest their starters in the second half. Paul Millsap and Ersan Ilyasova added 10 points apiece.

“We showed that we’ve got a bunch of guys who are ready to play,” said backup point guard Jose Calderon, who was on the court for more than 17 minutes. “That gives us confidence.”

Jeremy Lamb led the Hornets with 21 points, but it was a forgettable ending to a disappointing year in Charlotte.

“The season was a letdown for us,” Lamb said. “We’ve just to learn from it.”

TIP-INS

Hornets: Closed the season with a five-game losing streak. … Michael Kidd-Gilchrist became the third Charlotte player in the last four seasons to start at least 81 games in a season. Walker and Marvin Williams did it last season. … Lamb is a native of suburban Norcross. … The Hornets shot just 33 percent from the field.

Hawks: Howard posted his 53rd double-double of the season. … Thabo Sefolosha scored four points in 15 minutes after missing eight games with a right groin strain. … Atlanta announced before the game that manager of basketball operations Malik Rose will serve as general manager of their new D-League team beginning next season. … How long had it been since the Hawks defeated the defending NBA champion in back-to-back games? It last happened in February 1984, when Atlanta beat Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers on consecutive nights.

KEMBA SITS

The Hornets shut Walker down for the final two games of the regular season, officially because of left knee soreness but largely to ensure he didn’t sustain a needless injury for a team already eliminated from the playoffs.

Walker finished at 23.2 points a game, the best year of his career.

Charlotte was also without another double-figure scorer, Marco Belinelli, who missed the last three games of the season with a strained left finger.

MILLSAP’S AWARD

Before the game, Millsap received the team’s Jason Collier Memorial Trophy for community service.

The award is named after the former Hawks center who died in 2005 at age 28 from a heart condition.

UP NEXT

Hornets: Summer vacation. Finished at 36-46, a significant drop-off from the 48-34 mark posted by last year’s playoff team.

Hawks: Close the regular season at Indiana on Wednesday night. The game means nothing to Atlanta, but the Pacers are still trying to lock up a playoff berth.

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .

For more AP NBA coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Top-10 college recruit Anfernee Simmons may go straight to NBA

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A couple of years back, Thon Maker decided to play a post-graduate fifth year of prep school ball, not go to a major college, then jump to the NBA. He could because he had graduated a year before and was 19, the Bucks took him in the lottery, and so far it has worked out for everyone.

Now another recruit, Anfernee Simmons, may follow that path. Simmons is spending this year at the IMG Academy, and the combo guard is considered a top-10 recruit in this class.

Jonathan Givony of ESPN broke the story after speaking to Simmons.

“Some people have brought it to my attention,” Simons told ESPN during an interview in Connecticut, where his team was participating in the National Prep Showcase. “As long as the opportunity is there, I will do it.

“I can see myself going to the NBA combine, if I have enough teams to actually invite me or recommend me for the combine and enough teams want to bring me for workouts. I really need to hit the weight room hard and get a little stronger.”

This is a sensible approach — find out where you roughly fall in the draft, then make a decision. Listen to the teams, not friends/family/agents. If you have a first-round guarantee, then go pro.

Givony and others describe the 6’3″ Simmons as talented but still a project for the NBA level, starting with the fact he needs to get stronger (something true of most rookies). Not that it really scares off teams any longer, many are willing to develop and wait on a player with potential (he could spend a chunk of his first season in the G-League). Simmons is fast when he drives, and has a smooth release on his jumper. If he gets stronger and his game matures, a team may take a risk on him.

Shorthanded Cavaliers now without Iman Shumpert for 5-7 days

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Isaiah Thomas is still rehabbing his hip, he should return next month.

With him out, Tyronn Lue and the Cavaliers have had to lean more on Derrick Rose at the point, except he has a sprained ankle that is going to have him out a couple more weeks.

That has forced Iman Shumpert into the starting point guard role in Cleveland, although he mostly is there for defense/shooting as the playmaking duties fall to LeBron James.

Now the Cavaliers will have to get by without Shumpert for a while with water on the knee, Cleveland announced on Saturday. He left Friday night’s Cavs win against the Clippers with a sore knee and did not return

“Additional examination and imaging today at Cleveland Clinic Sports Health confirmed left knee effusion. He will be out 5-7 days while he undergoes treatment and rehabilitation,” the Cavaliers said in a statement.

This is going to force Lue to play Jose Calderon, who he has kept glued to the bench this season despite the injuries. J.R. Smith and Dwyane Wade will need to take on more run as well.

The Celtics have won four in a row — thanks to a more focused offense — and face the Pistons, Nets, and Hornets this week.

Joakim Noah on if he can play at former level: “Probably not. Probably not.”

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For three games, Joakim Noah has been clear of the 20-game PED suspension he started at the end of last season.

For three games, he has not even dressed for the Knicks.

This is the former Defensive Player of the Year who was already on the decline when Phil Jackson gave him a $72 million contract that is now the worst in the NBA. Noah is out of the rotation, where Enes Kanter starts at center (with Kristaps Porzingis at the four) and Kyle O’Quinn coming off the bench.

Noah told Marc Berman of the New York Post he is frustrated but gets the situation.

“I’ll be all right. I’ll be all right,’’ Noah said in his first comments since being reinstated. “I understand the situation. I’m going to make the best of it.”

When asked if he still feels he can be close to the player he was in his 2013-14 campaign, Noah said: “Probably not. Probably not. You know. I can help. I feel like I could help this team and that’s just my reality. But I just want to just be the best that I can be.

“It’s not about trying to be what I was three, four years ago, because it’s not the reality.”

Noah is a smart and mature player, he understands his reality, and he has the exact attitude you want a veteran off the bench. He can help in practices, he can help because he understands how to play defense and can teach it, and eventually, he will get a chance on the court. He is not part of the future of the Knicks, but he can guide these young players.

The Knicks new management will look for a way to unload Noah’s contract, but considering the sweeteners the Knicks would need to throw in to get a team to deal for Noah, it’s unlikely we see any action on that front for a long time.

Frustrated Gregg Popovich calls all three referees “f****** blind”

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The Spurs completed an amazing comeback win against the Thunder Friday night, coming from 23 down to knock off the Thunder when Carmelo Anthony‘s game-tying three was just a two because his toe was on the line.

Gregg Popovich was into this one.

So much so that when he didn’t like an out-of-bounds call he made sure all three officials knew exactly how blind he thought they were.

The best part of this is Popovich covering his eyes, just to really emphasize his point.

We’re really going to miss Pop when he steps away to live at a winery full time.