Hawks sting Hornets, set NBA playoff date with Wizards

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Center Dwight Howard scores 19 points as the Atlanta Hawks take down the Charlotte Hornets 103-79

The Atlanta Hawks beat the Charlotte Hornets 103-76 on Tuesday with 19 points and 12 rebounds from center Dwight Howard to set an NBA playoff date with the Washington Wizards.

The Hawks' fourth-straight victory assured them of the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, guaranteeing they'll play the fourth-seeded Wizards in the first round when the post-season kicks off over the weekend.

"We've been here before," said Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer, whose team has endured a roller-coaster regular season marked by soaring winning streaks and dispiriting skids.

"We need to stay humble, stay edgy and remember why we're playing better lately," he added. "Last four games it's been a simple message -- compete, stay together -- and guys are doing that well."

Howard connected on seven of nine attempts from the floor as the Hawks beat the Hornets for the first time in four games this season.

Paul Millsap added 10 points and seven rebounds and Ersan Ilyasova chipped in 10 for Atlanta, who rested their key players in the fourth quarter.

Everyone on the Hawks roster scored. Thabo Sefolosha, who missed the previous eight games with a right groin strain, limbered up for the playoffs, entering in the second quarter and finishing with four points.

Atlanta seized control in the first quarter when Howard scored 10 points. The Hawks shot 72 percent from the field in the period and led 38-26.

The Hawks stayed hot in the second quarter and led by as many as 21 points on three occasions on the way to a 63-44 halftime lead.

Atlanta pushed their lead to as many as 29 in the third. They were up by 34 with 2:43 left in the contest.

"Good performance," Budenholzer said. "I was pleased with our defensive activity, our aggressiveness at times was really, really good, the ball movement."

While the Hawks and Wizards are locked in for the first round, plenty remained to be decided on Wednesday's final night of the regular season.

The Boston Celtics lead the reigning NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers by one game atop the East. Boston host the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday in their season finale while Cleveland host the Toronto Raptors in a game they have already said superstar LeBron James will miss.

The Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat go into their season finales on Wednesday fighting for the last two playoff spots in the East.

- Thunder win as Westbrook sits -

In the West on Tuesday, Russell Westbrook was a spectator as his Oklahoma City Thunder held off the Minnesota Timberwolves 100-98 in Minneapolis.

Victor Oladipo scored 20 points and hit the game-winning jump shot with 6.3 seconds left for the Thunder, who rested Westbrook two days after their superstar recorded his record-setting 42nd triple-double of the season.

Westbrook was sitting out for the first time this season. In a league in which resting stars has become a hot topic, he was one of just six players in the league to have started all of his team's games.

In his absence, six Thunder players scored in double figures. Domantas Sabonis scored 19, Norris Cole came off the bench to score 12 and Kyle Singler tied a season high with 11.

"I think it's good to get a bit of extra run, put into situations that we're not used to, just to get used to that and get you in better shape," Sabonis said.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan agreed.

"You never know what happens in the playoffs. Foul trouble, injury, something can happen," he said. "So I think all these games are important."

The Thunder were already locked into the sixth seed in the West and will play the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs.

Karl-Anthony Towns scored 26 points and pulled down 12 rebounds for Minnesota.

Gorgui Dieng scored 19 points for the Timberwolves and Wiggins finished with 18. But Minnesota, who will miss the playoffs for the 13th-straight season, didn't have enough to hold off the Thunder after erasing a 13-point halftime deficit.