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The Road Ahead
As we reach the All-Star break, the Hornets are 33-25, which is good for sixth in the Western Conference. With only 24 games left, a top 3 seed appears out of reach, and the Hornets are four games behind Oklahoma City in the race for home court advantage in the first round. When you add in the fact that OKC has the tiebreaker, passing them seems unlikely as well. That leaves seeds 5-8 open, with six teams having a realistic shot at those four spots.
The Hornets remaining schedule looks pretty good on paper, but as we have seen of late, this team can lose to anybody if they are not at full strength. The good news is that Okafor should be back, starting with the Hornets first game against the Clippers and Dell Demps is working the phones to try and add depth and scoring to the current roster.
The Hornets will have 13 of their final 24 games at home and 14 of their last 24 games will come against teams that are currently not playoff teams. The following is a break down of what lies ahead.
Easiest Stretch of Games (February 23- March 1)
Immediately following the six day All-Star break, the Hornets open up with a four game stretch that can propel them forward in the playoff seedings. They start with the Clippers at home, then travel to Minnesota, back home for Houston, and then to Toronto to take on the Raptors. Minnesota is 2-0 against the Hornets this year, but New Orleans will be out for blood in that game, and there is no reason the Hornets shouldn’t take care of business against the Clips and Rockets at home. The Toronto game will be the start of a five game Eastern road trip for the Hornets, so coming out of this stretch 3-1 or 4-0 is imperative.
Toughest Stretch (March 19-27)
Boston at home, just as they begin to crank it up for the playoffs, then a 3-game West coast road trip at Utah, Phoenix and the Lakers. This four game stretch includes the two favorites to reach the NBA finals, and a city where the Hornets have had immense difficulty winning in over the last five years. Add a Phoenix team sandwiched in on the second night of a back to back, and that could be a brutal stretch for the Hornets. Then again, winning a couple of those games could give this team a huge confidence boost heading into the final two weeks of the season and the playoffs.
Back to Back Games: 4
The Hornets only have four sets of back to backs remaining, and actually have a few stretches where they will get quite a bit of rest between games. 2 of the 4 back-to-backs are in the beginning of March on the East coast road trip. March 2nd, the Hornets get the Knicks one night after facing the Raptors, and March 7th, the Hornets will be at Chicago after facing Cleveland the night before. Personally, I prefer back-to-backs set up like this. You get the easy team first, beat them up, and then take your chances with the more difficult team the next night. Much less likely to go 0-2. If it were flip-flopped, you could imagine a scenario in which the Hornets and Bulls beat up on each other all night and take it down to the wire, the Hornets lose and then are exhausted for Cleveland the next night. Hornets should go at least 1-1 in both of these situations.
One of the other BTB’s is the aforementioned at Utah, then at Phoenix in late March and the final one of the season comes on April 10/11, as the Hornets have the Grizzlies on the road and then come home to face Utah.
Key Games (3 vs. Memphis, 1 vs. Denver, 1 vs. Portland, 2 vs. Utah)
The Hornets get to face each of the teams that they are fighting for playoff positioning, and those battles will go a long way in determining who ends up in which spot. Most believe that Denver will simply fall out of the playoff mix once they trade Carmelo, but that squad will still have tons of talent, and an outstanding home-court advantage. Now, if they have a fire sale and let K Mart, Nene, and JR go as well, then perhaps we can discount them, but not yet.
The Hornets face the Grizzlies three more times this year, and don’t look now but Memphis is only 1.5 games behind the Hornets. New Orleans escaped with a victory in the first meeting, but this Memphis team has a lot of talent and has been playing much better as of late. Don’t count them out. Utah on the other hand, has been in a free fall the past couple of weeks, but they are still a threat.
Portland will probably be the Hornets biggest competition for that 5 seed, and a win against them on March 30th would be huge, as it would give the Hornets the regular season tiebreaker against the Blazers.
The Stretch Run
April is the final month of the NBA season and when conference races are this tight, every game can mean a huge shift in the seeding. The Hornets have seven games over the final 13 days, and five of those games are at home. In fact, if you reach back into April, the Hornets will have quite a nice home stand, as they will be in New Orleans Â from March 28th to April 9th, sleeping in their own beds, eating at their favorite restaurants, practicing in their own gym, etc.
The five home games in April are against Memphis, Indiana, Houston, Phoenix and Utah. Meanwhile, the only two road games New Orleans has is at Memphis and at Dallas. The Dallas game might be a game in which the Hornets catch a break, as it is the last game of the season, and in all likelihood, the Mavs will already have locked in their position.
Those final seven games will give the Hornets a good opportunity to pick up some wins, and also gauge where they are as they head into the playoffs. A nice winning streak, coupled with a favorable first round matchup, could propel the Hornets into the second round, where a healthy New Orleans team could be a nightmare for the Spurs or the Lakers.