The Toronto Raptors are one of two Eastern Conference teams to have clinched home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs. The Atlanta Hawks won't get any closer to doing the same Thursday night without finally beating them.
A near-lock to be the East's No. 2 seed, Toronto heads to Atlanta with little left to play for but could make a statement by completing a season sweep of a Hawks team that's in a crowded race for the Nos. 3 and 4 spots.
It's possible these teams will meet again in the second round of the playoffs if the Hawks (46-32) can hang on to the No. 3 seed, but Boston, Miami and Charlotte are all close on their heels. None of those teams can catch the Raptors (52-25), who have wrapped up a third straight Atlantic Division title but find Cleveland atop the East virtually out of reach.
"The only thing we do is focus on us, just us, and finishing out these last five games," forward Patrick Patterson said. "Treating them like playoff games and staying focused."
Atlanta has been better over the past month, winning 13 of 17. However, two of those losses came to the Raptors, who have won four straight and seven of eight against the Hawks. Toronto now looks to sweep this season series for the first time since taking all four meetings in 2001-02.
DeMar DeRozan averaged 28 points in last month's two wins over the Hawks and has scored at least 26 in three straight games.
DeRozan and Kyle Lowry were rested in Toronto's only loss in its past four games, 102-95 at San Antonio on Saturday. The Raptors followed with a 96-90 win over the Hornets on Tuesday as DeRozan scored 26 and Lowry added 21.
"When we are going against a playoff team that's definitely fighting for home court, you can't let up," DeRozan said.
Now Toronto goes on the road to face another one.
Atlanta has won eight of 10 at home with the most recent defeat coming in overtime to the Cavaliers on Friday. The Hawks came out flat four nights later against woeful Phoenix, needing to overcome a 13-point deficit in the third quarter to win 103-90.
''Most of our motivation was having something to fight for going into the playoffs,'' said Paul Millsap, who was two assists shy of his second career triple-double. ''... That's where our motivation comes from, just taking pride in who we are and what we're trying to accomplish.''
Jeff Teague had a team-high 20 points as his surge continued, averaging 23 in the past four games.
The key for the Hawks, though, remains on the defensive end. They've held their past seven opponents to a combined 40.2 percent from the field. Atlanta forced 24 turnovers, one off a season high, against the Suns and held them under 20 points in each of the final three quarters.
"Our defense has been who we are through the whole season, so that's what we gotta lean on when times get tough," Millsap said.
The Hawks are 15-2 when forcing 20 or more turnovers, but Toronto hasn't committed that many in a game in nearly three months. The Raptors have averaged 13 in three meetings with Atlanta.