The Washington Wizards believe they've closed the gap between them and the Atlanta Hawks. They have their first chance to prove it, though the defending Southeast Division champions have shown few signs of a letdown.
When the teams square off for the first time since last season's Eastern Conference playoffs Saturday night, the soaring Hawks return home seeking a seventh consecutive win.
Atlanta (6-1) finished 14 games ahead of the second-place Wizards and ousted Washington in six games during the conference semifinals, though it won the final three by a combined nine points. A subsequent lopsided sweep at the hands of Cleveland and the loss of valued forward DeMarre Carroll in free agency left many wondering if the Hawks were due for a market correction following a franchise-record 60-win 2014-15 campaign.
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The Hawks appeared vulnerable after dropping their season opener at home to improving Detroit but haven't lost since, running their win streak to six with Friday's 121-115 triumph at struggling New Orleans.
Atlanta extended its surge with its best offensive performance of the season, shooting 53.2 percent overall and making 9 of 21 attempts from 3-point range. Kyle Korver hit four 3s and went 8 for 8 from the field for 22 points after scoring 15 combined over his prior two outings.
''I've had a really tough start to the season,'' Korver said. ''Usually, when you're in a shooting slump, you get a good one when you break out of it. I don't know. I got some good looks (Friday), had a really good rhythm. I felt good before the game.''
Korver's big night could have him on the court again in the second of a back-to-back, something the sharpshooter hasn't done in two previous situations as he makes his way back from offseason ankle surgery.
Washington looked poised to challenge the Hawks for Southeast supremacy after a 3-1 start, but it had trouble matching up with Boston's smaller lineup in Friday's 118-98 loss that opened a two-game trip.
The Celtics exposed the Wizards' early-season defensive problems by amassing 72 first-half points. Washington is yielding 111.8 points per game over its last four and allowing opponents to shoot 47.4 percent over that stretch.
''We just don't have the commitment to defend and play the way that we have to play,'' coach Randy Wittman said. ''We just let Boston do whatever they wanted. They pushed us. They hit us.''
On the positive side, Bradley Beal scored 24 points to continue his torrid start. The fourth-year guard has had at least that many in all six games and is 16 for 32 on 3-point tries.
Beal hit a game-winning 3 with 0.3 seconds left to cap a 25-point effort in Wednesday's 102-99 decision over San Antonio and also shined in last season's playoff series against Atlanta, averaging 25.2 points.
The Hawks dominated the 2014-15 regular-season series, however, winning the first three matchups before resting their entire starting unit in a 108-99 loss on April 12 after having secured the East's No. 1 seed.
Jeff Teague averaged 21.7 points in the three victories and has recorded 19.3 points and 6.3 assists per game during Atlanta's win streak. The point guard had 19 points and seven assists against New Orleans.