NEW YORK — Inside a quiet Atlanta Hawks locker room, Tim Hardaway Jr. held his head inside his jersey for a few minutes while other players huddled around small phone screens to view out-of-town scores relative to their playoff positioning.
The Hawks could have been watching those scores after improving their own standing in the crowded Eastern Conference race.
Instead, their positioning became slightly less secure following a 91-82 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday night.
“I think everybody’s disappointed with the loss,” said forward Paul Millsap, who scored 14 points in 26 minutes in his return from missing eight games with a left knee injury. “But at the end of the day, we just got to get some wins. We know that. As long as everyone keeps losing under us, we just got to make it to the playoffs. If we get there, we feel like we’re going to have a good chance.”
A year of inconsistencies continued as Atlanta (39-38) lost for the ninth time in 11 games since March 11. The Hawks reside in sixth, one game behind the Milwaukee Bucks (40-37) but one game ahead of the Chicago Bulls (38-39) and two up on both the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers (both 37-40).
“We’re still in the sixth seed and that’s all that matters,” Atlanta point guard Dennis Schroder said after leading the team with 16 points on 7 of 20 shooting. “I think everybody got bad stretches, even if it’s Golden State they have the bad stretch too. Every team (is) going through that every season and it’s a long season. I think everybody knows it’s almost at the finish line and we just got to stay together. We’re doing the right things, we just got to keep getting better.”
Now the Hawks will wait three days before facing the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers three times in a span of five days. In the meantime, their direct competition will reduce another game off their schedules.
A night after blowing a pair of 10-point leads to the Bulls, the Hawks were unable to stop Brook Lopez and were done in by shooting 37.5 percent and committing 20 turnovers. They also were unable to get over the hump after getting the deficit to 83-80 on a 3-point play by Hardaway with 3:2 remaining.
Hardaway’s play was Atlanta’s last basket as it missed its final six shots, five within 10 feet and committed a shot clock violation.
“They were aggressive from the start and they played hard,” Schroder said. “It’s just like Philly. A lot of people put their life on the game and just give everything they got. We got to come with the same energy, match it and do it for 48 minutes. I think we did a great job in the fourth quarter, came back. We got to be locked in for 48 minutes.”
Lopez led all scorers with 29 points and is 60 points shy of tying Buck Williams (10,440) for the most points in franchise history. Lopez recorded his 45th game with at least 20 points and did so on a night when the Nets shot 39 percent and committed 21 turnovers.
The Nets improved to 2-10 when shooting less than 40 percent and committing at least 20 turnovers. They did so because of a defense that allowed a season-low in points and the fifth-lowest shooting percentage of the season.
“Our defense is improving in general,” Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson said. “I think it’s a sign of us getting better defensively and I thought we just did a good job overall.”
Jeremy Lin added 15 points and Rondae-Hollis Jefferson contributed 11 as the Nets (18-59) improved to 9-10 in their last 19 games after losing 27 of 28.
“At the end of the day, in the NBA a win is a win,” Lin said. “We’ll take them any which way we can.”
Brooklyn surged ahead in the opening minutes of the fourth while Lopez rested. A 3-pointer by Trevor Booker upped the lead to 78-63 with 9:37 remaining. After allowing the Hawks to creep back in it, the Nets
Brooklyn emphatically sealed the win when Lin found Booker wide open for a reverse dunk with 28.4 seconds remaining.
NOTES: Atlanta F Paul Millsap said the plan was for him to play about 24 minutes after he missed the previous eight games with a left knee injury. “Overall I felt pretty good,” Millsap said. … Atlanta F Ersan Ilyasova was listed as probable with a right ankle injury but was in the starting lineup. He scored four points. … Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson announced that G Joe Harris (sprained left shoulder) would be shut down for the rest of the season. Harris last played March 3 in Utah. Atkinson said the injury was not “terrible” but shutting down Harris “made sense”. … Atlanta G Malcolm Delaney (back spasms) missed his fourth consecutive game while G/F Thabo Sefolosha (strained right groin) missed his fifth straight contest. … Brooklyn F Quincy Acy returned from missing two games with a sore left ankle and went scoreless in 15 minutes.