East-leading Hawks face LeBron in possible playoff preview

ATLANTA (AP) - The Atlanta Hawks are blowing away everyone in the Eastern Conference.

Yet, there's always a sense that LeBron James will be standing in the way when they get to the playoffs.

That scenario adds an extra bit of intrigue to Friday night's matchup in Atlanta between the Hawks and James' Cleveland Cavaliers.

The front-running Hawks insist they're not treating this game any different. Of course, that's what you would expect from the team with a double-digit lead in the East, which has all but locked up home-court advantage throughout the conference playoffs with more than a month to go in the regular season.

''We want to be better later in the season than we are now,'' forward DeMarre Carroll said Thursday, shortly after the Hawks wrapped up an hour-long practice. ''This is more about the Hawks than any sort of message game.''

The Cavaliers see it a bit different. Even though they are 10 1-2 games behind the Hawks, dueling with Chicago and Toronto for the second seed, they haven't backed off their expectations of competing for a championship.

''Obviously, we have some great teams in the league that are ahead of us,'' guard Kyrie Irving said. ''We're trying to use that as a barometer and test for us when we come out to play, especially on the road. These games mean a lot. Seeding is a big thing. We just want to take care of business.''

The Hawks are the NBA's most surprising team, a long-overlooked franchise that went unbeaten in January (during a 19-game winning streak) and had four players - Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague, Al Horford and Kyle Korver - in the All-Star Game.

After a 7-6 start, they have won 41 of their last 48 games, their latest run of five in a row extended Tuesday when they rallied from an 18-point deficit to beat Houston. Atlanta has the league's best record (48-12), a half-game ahead of Golden State, and merely needs to win 12 of its last 22 games to ensure home court in the East.

The Cavaliers (39-24) haven't been the powerhouse everyone expected after luring James back to Cleveland and trading for Kevin Love, pairing those two with Irving to create their own version of the Big Three.

Even though Cleveland seems to be coming together, winning eight of its last 11, James said it's too soon to make comparisons to the conference's newest powerhouse.

''It shouldn't be about the team we're playing,'' James said after the Cavs held off the Toronto Raptors 120-112 on Wednesday. ''It's about our process. Obviously, Atlanta has been playing great basketball all year. We can't try to go in there and see where we are with them.

''They've been playing the most consistent, along with Golden State, all year. So we'll see where we are. If we keep getting better, we keep playing defense like we've been playing the last couple of months, we'll give ourselves a great chance.''

While the Hawks have maintained essentially the same roster all year, the Cavaliers have made some major changes since the first three meetings between the teams, all before New Year's Day.

Cleveland acquired J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert from the New York Knicks to provide additional scoring, and bulked up on the inside by picking up 7-foot-1 Timofey Mozgov from Denver and signing 6-10 Kendrick Perkins.

''They're going to test us, they're going to challenge us,'' Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. ''That's what you want. You want to be tested and you want to be challenged in a big way. I think our guys, and all of us, look forward to that test and that challenge. But it's not really sending really any messages or anything like that, where we stand or where anybody stands.''

The Cavaliers handed Atlanta its worst loss of the season back on Nov. 15, 127-94, but the Hawks bounced back just a month later to dole out Cleveland's most lopsided defeat, 127-98 - the game that signaled this team had a chance to be something special.

Atlanta won again on Dec. 30 in a much more competitive matchup, 109-101.

For their final meeting of the regular season, the Hawks are at home and well rested after two days off. The Cavaliers were off Thursday, their only break in a stretch of four games in five days.

So, while this may not exactly be a fair fight, it should be a more accurate gauge of where both teams are with the playoffs approaching.

''It's going to be a good challenge,'' Teague said. ''As long as we're playing well at the end of the season and going into the playoffs, as long as we're playing at a high level on both ends, that's all that really matters to me.''

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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