Hawks know from experience that 8 seeds can be troublesome

ATLANTA (AP) There's nothing to indicate the Atlanta Hawks will have any trouble with the Brooklyn Nets in the opening round of the NBA playoffs.

The top-seeded Hawks won all four regular-season meetings by an average of more than 17 points. They finished a whopping 22 games ahead of the Nets in the Eastern Conference standings.

But Atlanta knows from experience that a No. 8 seed can cause plenty of problems.

A year ago, the Hawks were in the same position when they took on the Indiana Pacers. Atlanta won twice in Indianapolis, had a chance to wrap up the series at home, and wound up losing in a seven-game thriller.

Now it's the Hawks (60-22) with the target on their backs after setting a franchise record for wins and earning their first No. 1 seed since 1994.

''We understand that seeds don't really matter once you get in the playoffs,'' Hawks center Al Horford said. ''We were the perfect example of that last year. We pushed Indiana to the limit. We understand we need to come out with a sense of urgency.''

The Nets (38-44) didn't clinch a playoff berth until the final night of the regular season. They know they'll have their hands full trying to become only the sixth No. 8 seed to win a series since the playoff format expanded in 1984.

''They've played consistently well all year long,'' Brooklyn coach Lionel Hollins said. ''It's a tremendous challenge, but that's what competition is all about.''

Here are some things to watch for when the Hawks take on the Nets:

TURNING IT BACK ON: After building a huge lead in the Eastern Conference, the Hawks coasted down the stretch with the idea of giving their starters plenty of rest and keeping everyone as healthy as possible. The team won only seven of its last 15 games, including a pair of three-game losing streaks. Can Atlanta regain the form that led to a 19-game winning streak and a perfect mark in January?

LOPEZ IN THE MIDDLE: Center Brook Lopez might provide one of the best chances for Brooklyn to pull off a huge upset. The 7-footer has really stepped up his play since the All-Star break by averaging 19.7 points and 9.2 rebounds, compared to 15.3 and 6.2 over the first 42 games. Lopez was even better over the final 16 games, averaging 23.2 points. The Hawks don't have anyone to match up to Lopez physically, so they'll try to beat the Nets with speed, quickness and lots of running. Brooklyn, on the other hand, would prefer a game that's played primarily in the half-court.

MILLSAP'S SHOULDER: Atlanta's All-Star forward, Paul Millsap, will be wearing a protective pad on his right shoulder after missing five games with a sprain. Millsap was able to return for the season finale, playing 27 minutes, but concedes the shoulder is still a bit tender. ''Anybody coming off an injury, they kind of favor their injury. They don't want it to get hit,'' Millsap said. ''I'm going to try not to think about it, but it's tough.'' Backup forward Mike Scott also went down with a bruised back in the final week, but he practiced Saturday and is expected to play for the Hawks in Game 1.

JOE'S RETURN: Brooklyn's Joe Johnson was a perennial All-Star when he played with the Hawks from 2005-12. Now, he faces his former team. While Johnson would no doubt like to end Atlanta's amazing season, he insisted it's not doing to be a solo effort. Johnson will surely hear some extra boos when he's in Atlanta, where he was always viewed as a guy who never quite fulfilled his potential by becoming one of the NBA's elite players. The trade that sent him to the Nets is considered the key move in the overhauling of the Hawks' roster.

NO THABO: The Hawks lost a valuable player off the bench when Thabo Sefolosha sustained a season-ending injury, which he claims was caused by New York City police during a much-debated arrest with a week to go in the regular season. The 6-foot-7 Sefolosha was the main backup to small forward DeMarre Carroll, providing another top defender on the perimeter. Kent Bazemore will step up to fill Sefolosha's role, but he's 2 inches shorter and may have trouble guarding bigger forwards. Sefolosha's absence could really prove to be an issue if the Hawks wind up facing LeBron James and the second-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference finals.

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

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