There is nothing joyous about backing into the NBA play-in tournament.
Devonte Graham left no doubt of that after the Charlotte Hornets lost their second straight at home, this time falling to the Denver Nuggets 117-112.
Graham was asked if there would be room for celebration if the Chicago Bulls lost (they did to the Brooklyn Nets), assuring the Hornets would advance to at least one play-in game next week.
“Not at all,” Graham said after scoring a season-high 31 points. “We’ve got to figure out a way to close games ... Just play better overall.”
The Hornets are stumbling to their first postseason appearance since the spring of 2016. Tuesday, they had a terrible start, trailing by as many as 21 points in the first quarter. They got a boost from the play of Graham, who’d missed the last four games with a sore right knee, and center Cody Zeller (15 points and 10 rebounds), who hasn’t started in a while.
It’s no news the Hornets are shorthanded. They’re still missing Miles Bridges, Gordon Hayward and Cody Martin. But this late-season swoon isn’t exclusively about who is available. The Hornets committed 17 turnovers Tuesday, after looking dysfunctional offensively in the fourth quarter Sunday of a brutal loss to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Tuesday, they played most of the second half without coach James Borrego, who got the first ejection of his NBA career. Lead official James Williams assessed Borrego two technical fouls about three minutes into the third quarter. Borrego was arguing after rookie LaMelo Ball was called for an out-of-bounds turnover on the far baseline.
At least, I assume that’s what set off Borrego; he declined to talk post-game about the specifics of his ejection.
Like Graham, Borrego wasn’t buying that a Bulls loss was cause for to celebrate.
“No room for celebration,” Borrego said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
The Pacers now in their rearview mirror
The bad news scoreboard-wise, was the Indiana Pacers beating the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday. That leveled the Pacers’ record with the the Hornets’ at 33-36. Charlotte holds the tiebreaker over the Pacers (and also the 10th-place Washington Wizards), but that’s an awfully flimsy advantage with three games left — all of which the Hornets could lose.
Thursday they play the Los Angeles Clippers at Spectrum Center, followed by road games Saturday against the New York Knicks and Sunday against the Wizards. It’s not a stretch that they could lose out and end up 10th, which would mean a road game in a win-or-you’re-out situation.
It feels essential that they win at least one of the remaining three games, both for the standings and simply for their state of mind. Graham talked about how uncomfortable it is to have to hope another team loses, rather than win to get in.
“We don’t want to put our destiny in nobody else’s hands,” Graham said. “I don’t like to think like that. I want to control what we can control.”
Two humble suggestions
Assuming Hayward (foot sprain) and Bridges (COVID-19 related protocol) aren’t returning imminently, it’s incumbent on Borrego to remix what he does have. Two suggestions:
Start Zeller again: It’s understandable that Borrego started Bismack Biyombo at center for a while to keep the defense organized and provide some degree of rim-protection. But that strategy has worn thin.
Borrego glowingly praised Zeller’s performance against MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic: “This guy is a warrior and a battler,” Borrego said of Zeller. “We’ve got to follow that lead.”
Exactly: Let Zeller lead. Start him or at least have him play the majority of center minutes off the bench.
Lean hard to 3-guard lineups: I respect that Borrego is willing to try the unorthodox. Here is a prime opportunity. Even if it means often being undersized, play guards Ball, Graham and Terry Rozier together often, and sub in Malik Monk, too.
This offense needs the boost we saw from Graham on Tuesday. Also, Ball looks worn down and the way he fidgets with his right hand, his once-fractured wrist is still acting up. Graham can take some ball-handling and distribution off Ball’s plate.
Going small might not work. But nothing much else has lately, either. It’s worth a long look over these last three games.