The Atlanta Hawks have a chance to end the longest postseason drought in the NBA, but lately they haven't been playing like they want to take advantage of the opportunity.
The Hawks can move back into playoff position Friday when they host the struggling Los Angeles Clippers.
Atlanta (26-38), which has not reached the postseason since 1999, is in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, a half-game behind New Jersey for the final playoff spot. The Hawks, however, have dropped six of their last seven games, including Wednesday's 83-75 loss to Houston - the Rockets' 20th straight win.
"It's been tough," said the Hawks' Joe Johnson, who had a team-high 28 points. "Every time we get in a position to move up, we take a step back."
Despite winning just four of their last 18 games, the Hawks still have a good shot at the postseason because of the weakness of the Eastern Conference. The Nets are 25 games behind conference-leading Boston.
By contrast, the top four teams in the West were separated by just 4 1/2 games following Wednesday's games.
The Hawks played tough defense Wednesday, holding the Rockets to 33.3 percent shooting - the lowest of any opponent this season. Atlanta, however, shot 33.8 percent, its second-lowest mark of the season.
"I thought we had a lot of good looks tonight, shots that we've been making the last two, three weeks," coach Mike Woodson said. "We just couldn't make shots, and it put so much pressure on us defensively to get stops. I thought our defense was terrific tonight."
Josh Smith had 16 points and a career-high 22 rebounds for his second straight double-double. Guard Acie Law returned after missing 11 games with a sprained right wrist, but did not score in nearly 10 minutes off the bench.
The Hawks have dropped seven of their last nine against the Clippers (21-42), but their two wins in that span have come in the last three meetings. Atlanta beat Los Angeles 86-74 on Jan. 6, 2007, ending a three-game home losing streak in the series.
The Clippers have dropped nine of 11, including Wednesday's 110-86 loss to Orlando. Corey Maggette scored 20 of his 22 points in the first half, but Los Angeles clearly missed center Chris Kaman, who missed his second straight game with a sore back.
"I knew it was going to be a pretty long night against Dwight (Howard) without Chris," coach Mike Dunleavy said. "Dwight was just a nightmare matchup for us. We had to collapse and double team him and they have too many good shooters. Sooner or later someone is going to catch fire."
Rookie Al Thornton chipped in 17 points and has averaged 19.0 over his last three games.
"You look at all the games that we have won in the last month and a half, and we have needed that third scorer in there," Dunleavy said. "We are going to get points from Maggette. (Cuttino) Mobley is going to get points. When Kaman is in there he is going to get points. When Al is in there and gives us a really good game, then we get that extra guy that gives us a chance to win games."
Copyright 2007 by STATS LLC and Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and Associated Press is strictly prohibited