Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford noted Sunday that the Milwaukee Bucks made a 14-4 run after the All-Star break last season to reach the playoffs.
Clifford’s point was to illustrate the Hornets still have a chance. But that number also illustrates it would take something spectacular down the stretch, plus some good luck, for the Hornets to at least finish the regular season eighth in the Eastern Conference.
For now, they have momentum: Sunday’s blowout home victory over the Detroit Pistons – they led by as many as 32 points – was a season-best fourth consecutive victory. Also, that win clinched the season series against the Pistons (2-1), which conveys a tiebreaker for the Hornets.
Still, the 10th-place Hornets’ 27-33 record is four games worse than the eighth-place Miami Heat. Also, the Hornets lost all four games this season against the Heat, so the tiebreaker is already lost.
If you wanted to build a road map to the Hornets reaching the post-season, here are a lucky seven steps, most, if not all of which, must happen:
Be dramatically better on the road
Every team in the top eight in the East is close to, if not better than, .500 away from home. In contrast, the Hornets are 10-18 away from the Spectrum Center. The Hornets have 13 road games left. They might have to win nine or more of those to make up enough ground.
Hope Miami plummets or thrives
Hornets fans don’t want the Heat floundering along near .500. Obviously, they lose a head-to-head tiebreaker with Miami, but Miami being in a multi-team tiebreaker with the Hornets could also make them odd-man-out.
If they must lose, do it vs. West
The Hornets are 9-4 this season against the other four teams in the Southeast Division, but division record doesn’t count for much in the NBA. Conference record can be a factor in tiebreakers. The Hornets are only 16-18 against the East, but 19 of the remaining 22 games are within the conference. If they must lose, it’s slightly less costly to lose at New Orleans (March 13), home against Memphis (March 22) or at Dallas (March 24).
Burn the Sixers
It’s odd to go this late into an NBA season without having played a single game against another team in your conference. The Hornets have all four games against the 76ers left, starting Friday in Philadelphia. While it’s highly unlikely they would catch the seventh-place Sixers (six games better in the standings, and winners of eight of their past 10), it’s not inconceivable.
Between Nic Batum’s elbow injury, Cody Zeller’s knee surgery and Michael Carter-Williams’ sore knees, the Hornets have had long absences by rotation players. But since the All-Star break, Clifford has had all 14 players available. They need that to continue.
Trust the bench
The Hornets second unit in general (and Frank Kaminsky in particular) has had back-to-back strong games in the victories over the Washington Wizards and Detroit Pistons, both teams above Charlotte in the standings. The bench has been this team’s ongoing weakness, both last season and this. A reversal of that for more than a handful of games would be big.
Or … don’t trust the bench
A brief history lesson from the first time this team qualified for the playoffs with Steve Clifford as coach, in 2014. Point guard Kemba Walker played a ton down the stretch, and the Hornets won eight of their last nine games. He missed the only loss in that span, at Boston. Walker averages 35 minutes this season, tops on the Hornets; conceivable that could rise in late March and April if they stay in a playoff race.
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell