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Hawks face their unwitting benefactor

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Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA -- “16-2,” DeMarre Carroll said.

The Atlanta starters had waxed the reserves in the intrasquad scrimmage during practice on Friday, which wouldn’t be a revelation, except that it’s far less common than you’d think. As he made note of the margin, Carroll pointed to the scoreboard in the Hawks’ practice gym.

“The bench usually takes care of us in practice,” Carroll said. “Ask Elton [Brand] about it. He pushes them -- and he always brags about it. But today the energy [among the starters] was so high. It was amazing.”

To a man, each Hawk who spoke on Friday emphasized the intensity level during the workout. The declarations weren’t statements of pride -- players 1 through 5 should beat players 6 through 10 -- so much as acknowledgements that it felt good to ready themselves for some games with serious table stakes. For the better part of a month, the Hawks have been locked into the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Though they’d never insult fans who paid their hard-earned shekels to watch professional basketball, getting through the back end of their schedule was an exercise in mild indifference, especially coming down off the adrenaline of an improbable midseason run, a winner’s remix of the Nuggets’ “1-2-3 ... six weeks!”

“It does feel like we have not played a meaningful game in a long time,” Kyle Korver said. “It feels that way. But we had a great practice today. Guys had super-high energy. We’re ready to go.”

Their opponents are the 38-44 Brooklyn Nets, at least to most. To the Hawks, they’re the gift that keeps on giving. On July 2, 2012, one week into general manager Danny Ferry’s tenure, the Hawks traded Joe Johnson and the nearly $90 million remaining on his contract to Brooklyn for a trove of expiring contracts, a first-round pick, a second-round pick and the right to swap picks in 2014 and 2015. The deal created a trade exception for Atlanta, as well. John Hollinger broke down the trade the morning after, and had this to say:

“With two landmark moves in a period of hours Monday that wiped nearly $90 million off the payroll, the Hawks went from a franchise that considered losing in the second round of the playoffs to be the pinnacle of human achievement to being one that could matter -- I mean really, truly matter -- for the first time since Dominique Wilkins was making nightly highlight films.”

The Hawks now really, truly matter and the foundation of that relevance is the dividends of the Johnson trade. The Hawks used that exception to acquire Korver from Chicago. The payroll flexibility created by the deal enabled the Hawks to sign Paul Millsap, to retain Korver when his contract expired the following summer, to make a reasonable offer to Jeff Teague that wouldn’t cramp their style and to bolster the roster with a nice complement of reserves.

The Nets can’t begrudge the Hawks that, but having to fork over their draft pick this summer to a flourishing team while they creep closer to old age can’t be an affirming experience. The Hawks, meanwhile, have the pleasure of enjoying their best season in franchise history and still picking in the top half of the draft.

The Hawks are the anti-Nets, a franchise that values long-range planning and constructing a roster with purpose. Korver and Carroll might not be complete players, but they’re so perfectly suited to the system in Atlanta that you can imagine the “Korver-Carroll” wing tandem becoming a league model: Throw an elite defender who can shoot a little bit and an elite shooter who can defend a little bit out at the 2 and the 3, and you’re set. They’re also considerably cheaper than Johnson, a prolific isolation threat who nevertheless constricts an offense. The Nets didn’t care. For them, building a team comes from the accumulation of individual talent. For the Hawks, it comes from the adoption of collective principles.

All that sounds precious, but the Hawks rode that ethic to 60 wins. For nearly six months, they’ve been the NBA’s fair-haired child, one who defied 100-1 preseason title odds and the September dust-ups with owner Bruce Levenson and Ferry to close up the top seed in late March. But the moment they take the court at Philips Arena late on Sunday afternoon, the Hawks officially calibrate their expectations. Their regular season was a real achievement, and there probably hasn’t been a full appreciation. But a Southeast Division Champs banner is still a lousy return on 60 wins, even if it looks pretty in contrast to the woeful fortunes of the Nets.