CHARLOTTE — After a disastrous February in which the Hornets won only two of 12 games, Charlotte turned around its season in a major way in March by winning nine of 13 games.
The pendulum-swinging pattern comes just at the right time for the Hornets (39-37), who have only two games at home and four on the road left as the NBA’s regular season winds down.
With a spot in the Play-In Tournament likely, ninth-seeded Charlotte is now finding itself jockeying for Eastern Conference positioning in a primary battle with the eighth-seeded Brooklyn (39-36) and 10th-seeded Atlanta (38-37).
The Hornets’ final six games — and the remaining games against their conference foes — will determine which of these teams have an upper hand in the play-in games on April 12-15.
Beginning in 2020, the NBA unveiled its Play-In Tournament format that allows more teams to have a shot at the postseason. While the top six teams in each conference have a playoff spot automatically locked in, the seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th-ranked squads now battle it out for a chance to enter the playoff bracket as the seventh or eighth seed.
Per league rules, the team with the seventh-highest winning percentage in each conference gets to host the team with the eighth-highest winning percentage. The winner of that 7-8 game in each conference earns the No. 7 seed.
Subsequently, the team with the ninth-highest winning percentage in each conference hosts the team with the 10th-highest winning percentage. The loser of the 7-8 game then hosts the winner of the 9-10 game, with the victor earning the No. 8 seed.
If the season ended today, the seventh-seeded Cavaliers (42-33) would host the Nets, while the Hornets would host the Hawks.
In the play-in format, there is a clear advantage to being a No. 7 or No. 8 seed as opposed to a No. 9 or No. 10 seed — the former each have two opportunities to win one game to earn a playoff spot, while the latter each have to win two consecutive games to earn a playoff spot.
The Hornets’ fate in the play-in bracket is not guaranteed — Charlotte only trails sixth-seeded Toronto (43-32) by 4.5 games, while 11th-seeded New York (34-42) is just five games back.
The first of Charlotte’s six remaining games will be at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday against the Knicks, who have won four games in a row behind RJ Barrett and Alec Burks.
That is followed by a road game with Philadelphia on April 2, a road game with Miami on April 5, a home game with Orlando on April 7, a road game with Chicago on April 8, and finally a home game with Washington (32-42) on April 10.
On paper, it looks to be a moderately difficult end to the regular season, although the Hornets’ road record (19-18) is nearly identical to their performance at home (20-19).
“Our group is very resilient on the road,” Hornets coach James Borrego said Monday. “We’re OK being on the road. It’s a bunker mentality. It’s all business. It’s all focused right now.
“These are important games and our group battles on the road, so I don’t mind being on the road with them. It’s going to be a little bit of back and forth — I don’t think we’ll be out on the road for all 10 days — but it’s going to be a great time to come together even more down the stretch.”
For Charlotte, all eyes are on Atlanta, Brooklyn and the single game that separates the three teams in the standings.
Led by dynamic point guard Trae Young, the Hawks have won seven of their past 10 games and, like Charlotte, are playing their best basketball at the right time. With three home games and four road games left, Atlanta’s final seven opponents have a combined record of 246-280.
One of those Hawks games will be against Brooklyn, which has also won seven of its past 10. With Kyrie Irving returning to a full-time role now that he’s able to play in home games after New York City’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate was lifted, the Nets are primed to challenge Charlotte and Atlanta in the seeding war, especially with five of their final seven games being at home. Additionally, the Nets’ final seven opponents have a combined record of just 225-302.
With Charlotte, Brooklyn and Atlanta all peaking at once, the next week and a half of basketball could be very interesting.