The Charlotte Hornets are officially out of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
The Hornets’ 104-80 loss Friday to the Atlanta Hawks, combined with the Boston Celtics’ 99-90 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, mathematically eliminated the 33-46 Hornets from the playoff race.
This was an end that seemed fated over the past two weeks with starters Al Jefferson, Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist all hurt. Down 19 in the fourth quarter, Hornets coach Steve Clifford pulled every starter except center Bismack Biyombo. The 60-19 Hawks also pulled their starters, the game effectively over.
Clifford gave heavy minutes to rookies Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston and second-year pro Troy Daniels. That led to mixed results, but at this point coaching up the kids is really the only use for the remaining three games.
“That’s what these games are gonna be for – for them to learn,” Clifford said post-game. “The biggest thing for the young guys is timing issues. We have to get more organized.
Power forward Vonleh was the first player off the bench Friday. He shot 2-of-5 from the field and grabbed six rebounds. Small forward Hairston shot 3-of-7 for seven points but struggled at the defensive end trying to guard Kyle Korver.
Hairston frequently got caught up in screens that left Korver (16 points) wide open. In two other instances Hairston committed shooting fouls on Korver outside the 3-point arc.
Daniels played by far his most minutes since coming to the Hornets in the February trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves that acquired point guard Mo Williams. Daniels made 5-of-10 from the field (3-of-3 from 3-point range) for 15 points in 20 minutes.
“He can really shoot!” Clifford said of Daniels.
Clifford didn’t play starters Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson or Jeff Taylor any in the fourth quarter. Clifford said teams have taken to over-playing Walker in the pick-and-roll of late.
“We don’t have a lot of guys to score right now with what we have,” Clifford said.
Taylor didn’t shoot well (2-of-9 from the field), but he was the only Hornet available who could effective guard Korver.
The Hawks pulled away on a series of cuts to be the basket by center Al Horford (15 points) and power forward Mike Muscala (17 points), who was a fill-in starter for the injured Paul Millsap. A DeMarre Carroll transition layup with five minutes left extended Atlanta’s lead to 90-71.
The Hawks entered the fourth quarter with a 70-60 lead on two Charlotte breakdowns. First Taylor threw a lazy perimeter pass that was intercepted by Hawks point guard Jeff Teague. Teague turned, got ahead of Kemba Walker on the break and finished with a layup.
Then reserve Hawks forward Mike Scott scored on a jump hook for the nine-point lead – largest of that game to that point with five minutes left in the third quarter.
The Hornets’ three remaining games are Sunday afternoon on the road against the Detroit Pistons, Monday at home against the Houston Rockets and Wednesday in Toronto.