CHARLOTTE — For the second season in a row, a 10th-seeded Charlotte Hornets team will play in a win-or-go-home road game against a ninth-seeded opponent to keep its postseason hopes alive in the Eastern Conference Play-In Tournament.
Last year’s 144-117 Play-In loss to the Indiana Pacers marked a crushing finale for a group that wrapped up the final stretch of the regular season skidding on fumes while riddled with injuries and shooting woes.
As they approach Wednesday night’s 7 p.m. road game with the Atlanta Hawks (43-39), the Hornets (43-39) — led by LaMelo Ball, Miles Bridges and Terry Rozier — can take solace in the fact they have been playing some of their best basketball of late, riding a three-game winning streak and victories in 11 their past 15 contests into their 9-10 matchup.
“Last year, we had five straight losses coming in — that’s bad right there. This year, we got some wins at the end of the season, so I feel like this is a different vibe,” Ball said after his team’s 124-108 home win over Washington on April 10.
While they couldn’t improve their Play-In seeding — despite a win on the final day of the season — the Hornets’ destiny is in their hands to continue their 2021-22 campaign.
The winner between Charlotte and Atlanta will move on to challenge the loser of Tuesday’s contest between the eighth-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers (44-38) and seventh-seeded Brooklyn Nets (44-38). That road matchup will be played on April 15 at an unspecified time. The victor of that game will square off with the top-seeded Miami Heat (53-29) in the first official round of the playoffs starting on April 17.
“We get a shot to keep playing basketball,” Charlotte coach James Borrego said. “We’ll take our chances. We play well on the road, and I like us on the road. We’ve won in Atlanta before and we just have to go do it again. I have no idea after Wednesday night, but the opportunity to play meaningful postseason basketball is fantastic.”
Charlotte and Atlanta are no strangers to each other as they met four times during the regular season, splitting the season series 2-2.
The Hornets lost to the Hawks 115-105 in Atlanta early in the season on Nov. 20 before returning the favor in a 130-127 road win on Dec. 5. The Hawks pulled off a 113-91 win in Charlotte on Jan. 23, and the most recent matchup between the two squads was a 116-106 Hornets home win on March 16.
The Hornets — not exactly known for their stingy defense the past few years — have fared well when guarding two-time All-Star Trae Young, who has emerged with Ball as one of the NBA’s brightest young stars at point guard. This season, Young averaged 28.4 points, 9.7 assists, and 3.7 rebounds per game with 35.5% 3-point shooting, but against Charlotte he averaged just 20.8 points in four games.
The key for the Hornets’ defense on Wednesday will be not allowing the Hawks’ frontcourt to have their way in the paint. Eighth-year Hawks center Clint Capela is the exact type of player who has given Charlotte fits this season. While Capela’s numbers regressed slightly this year, he still averaged 11.1 points and 11.7 rebounds while making 61.3% of his field goals.
The effectiveness of Hornets centers Mason Plumlee and Montrezl Harrell (as well as forward P.J. Washington) in defending the paint will be as important as the matchup between Ball and Young.
The Hornets will be without forward Gordon Hayward, who is out indefinitely with continued discomfort in his left foot. The team confirmed Sunday that Hayward’s foot will be placed in a cast and reevaluated in two weeks.
“Gordon is a great guy to have on the bench and still have in the locker room helping guys out. He’s a great help, a great leader and a great vet on our team,” Rozier said. “We feel like we can definitely win, you know, sneak into the playoffs.
“I know once we get in the playoffs, everybody is going to be itching because this is where the real fun is. The regular season is fine, but this is where the real competitiveness and the real fun comes from.”