The Charlotte Hornets are on the outside looking in of the Eastern Conference playoff race with a week remaining in the NBA regular season. Their 111-102 defeat at Utah on Monday — the Hornets’ third straight loss — put Charlotte three full games behind eighth-place Miami and fifth among five teams jockeying for the final three playoff spots with only five games remaining.
A tall task has gotten even taller, but here’s a look at the Hornets’ possible path to the postseason.
Five on the floor
Heading into Wednesday’s games, Detroit, Brooklyn and Miami held the Eastern Conference’s final three playoff spots. The Pistons are sixth at 39-38, with the Nets a half-game behind (one more loss), and the Heat held the eighth and final spot at 38-39.
That means Orlando (38-40) and Charlotte (35-42) have work to do to unseat one of the three teams currently holding a spot. The Hornets are going to need help — a lot of it — to make up three games with just five left on the schedule.
The biggest stumbling block for the Hornets — aside from the ground they need to make up — might be their struggles on the road. Charlotte is a dismal 11-27 away from Spectrum Center this season, and three of the team’s final five games are away from the Queen City.
A silver lining is two of those road games are against New Orleans and Cleveland, teams that are headed to the lottery, along with a 4 p.m. game Sunday in Detroit. The Hornets are 3-0 against the Pistons this year, including a win in Detroit way back on Nov. 11. Charlotte has won two of three against the Cavaliers this season, but lost the only game in Cleveland on Nov. 13.
In their lone meeting with the Pelicans this season, the Hornets lost 119-109 at home. But that was an Anthony Davis-fueled win for New Orleans, and the Pelicans versatile big man has missed three straight and is considered questionable for Wednesday’s game.
Coming down to the wire
Next Wednesday’s season finale at home against Orlando could determine the playoff fates of both teams. The Hornets have won two of three against the Magic, but Orlando won the most recent game, on Feb. 14, 127-89. Kemba Walker scored just 10 points on 4-of-20 shooting that game. it was one of just four games this season Walker did not hit a 3-pointer, going 0 for 7.
The head-to-head game against the Magic will be a must-win, and the Hornets will also have to do some scoreboard watching, particularly of the Heat and Nets’ final games.
Just one of Miami’s final five games comes against a team already eliminated from the postseason. That includes games against the East’s No. 2, 3 and 4 teams — Toronto, Philadelphia and Boston, and the Heat have won just one of eight against those three teams. Throw in a road game against the Nets, and Miami’s schedule is even more difficult than that of the Hornets.
The Nets have just four games left, all against teams in an Eastern Conference playoff spot. That includes the conference’s two top teams, Milwaukee and Toronto, plus a trip to Indiana and the season finale against the Heat. Brooklyn is a combined 2-9 against those teams this season.
The reason Charlotte’s season-ending home game against Orlando is so important is the fact the Magic have the easiest slate the rest of the way. They play the league-worst Knicks on Wednesday at home, then host the lottery-bound Hawks who, to their credit, have won six of their last 10 — including an overtime win over the powerhouse Bucks on Sunday.
Orlando visits Boston on Sunday, and the Magic have beat the Celtics in both their previous matchups. Then next Wednesday, they visit Charlotte for both teams’ final game of the regular season.
The Hornets hold a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Pistons, but Detroit is up four games with five remaining — including the Pistons’ season-ending game against the lowly Knicks. Assuming Detroit beats New York, the Hornets would need to win out while the Pistons lost their other four games to see Charlotte leap over them in the standings.