Posted March 03, 2012 on
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A long winning streak is giving Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder a chance to pad their lead atop the Western Conference.
The Atlanta Hawks are looking to withstand another absence by Joe Johnson.
Durant and the red-hot Thunder look to capitalize as they meet the Hawks for the only time this season Saturday night.
Durant - Sunday's All-Star game MVP with 36 points - is among the NBA leaders with 28.0 points per game and a major reason Oklahoma City (29-7) has a four-game lead on Southwest Division-leading San Antonio in the West standings.
The Thunder are reinforcing their status as one of the league's top teams with their seven-game winning streak, matching their best of the season set two months ago.
They haven't put together a longer run since winning nine a row from Jan. 29-Feb. 21, 2010.
Durant overcame some sloppy play early and moved Oklahoma City closer to that mark Thursday, scoring 18 of his 38 points in the fourth quarter to erase a 14-point deficit and beat Orlando 105-102. He had three turnovers while going 2 for 6 from the field in the opening period.
"I was so down on myself. I was really going down after the first quarter," Durant said. "But my coaches and my teammates continued to encourage me and told me they believed in me. It just clicked for me and I started to make a few shots and free throws.
"Once your teammates give you that confidence, no matter what you feel good, and I was able to make some shots."
Durant hasn't had much trouble with the Hawks (21-15), averaging 31.0 points to spur a four-game winning streak. He had 29 points and eight rebounds, while Russell Westbrook added 28 points while dishing out nine assists in a 111-104 win at Atlanta on March 4 of last year.
The All-Star point guard is on a tear of late, averaging 28.7 points, 6.5 assists and 5.2 boards over the last six games.
While Durant and Westbrook should play a major role again, the Hawks are expected to be without Johnson, their leading scorer at 17.6 points per game.
Johnson would be sidelined for the fourth time in five games due to tendinitis in his left knee. The injury also prevented him from playing in the All-Star game.
Coach Larry Drew said he wants to make sure Johnson's knee is stronger before he returns, and that could mean holding him out until Tuesday's visit to Indiana that opens a six-game trip.
Atlanta overcame Johnson's absence Friday, getting 32 of its 34 fourth-quarter points from the bench, including the go-ahead 3-pointer from Vladimir Radmanovic with 11.9 seconds left, in order to beat Milwaukee 99-94.
"It was just beautiful to see that," said Josh Smith, who had 24 points and 19 rebounds but sat out most of the fourth quarter with the other starters.
Smith could play a key role again, as the Hawks are 10-0 when the forward scores at least 20 points. However, they lost 103-94 in their last visit to FedEx Forum on Dec. 31, 2010, despite 23 points and nine rebounds from Smith.
He missed the last meeting with Oklahoma City due to a sprained right MCL.
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Atlanta Hawks guard Joe Johnson will sit out Friday's game against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Johnson's sore knee stiffened during Wednesday's loss to the Golden State Warriors. It was his first game back after missing two games.
The All-Star guard had 18 points on 6-of-17 shooting against the Warriors.
Willie Green would normally replace Johnson, but he has been dealing with back spasms.
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