Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte Hornets’ magic number for playoff berth down to 4, with Philly up twice

Kemba Walker (15) and the Charlotte Hornets are moving toward their No. 1 preseason goal – an NBA Eastern Conference playoff berth.
Kemba Walker (15) and the Charlotte Hornets are moving toward their No. 1 preseason goal – an NBA Eastern Conference playoff berth. Getty Images

It’s almost time to put a checkmark next to the first item on the Charlotte Hornets’ preseason list.

Making the playoffs was Hornets coach Steve Clifford’s top goal when he first met with his players six months ago at training camp. And this could be the week the Hornets clinch their spot.

With Charlotte’s magic number standing at four – in any combination of Hornets wins and Chicago Bulls losses – headed into Monday night, Clifford’s crew is on the verge of making the playoffs for the first time time since 2014.

The Hornets can inch closer by taking care of business against the 9-65 Philadelphia 76ers, whom they meet twice in four days beginning Tuesday night on the road.

“(Making the playoffs is) super important for us,” Kemba Walker said Monday. “It’s been, what, two years since we’ve been? It’s special. We don’t get to the playoffs as often as we would like, so hopefully we can get there and start a new trend.”

At the least, a playoff berth would signal the organization is moving in the right direction. Establishing a winning culture is paramount for Clifford, and solidifying a second postseason berth since he came on board in 2013 could aid in the Hornets’ effort to climb up the conference’s ranks.

“That’s where it all starts,” Clifford said. “The NBA is about making – and then playing well in – the playoffs.

“We want to become a team that’s a perennial playoff team that’s always fighting for one of the top four spots. With the way the guys have played the last month and a half, that’s where we are.”

Clifford wants home-court advantage in the first round, but there are still challenges.

One of them is balancing the workload of his key players. Walker is averaging a team-high 35.9 minutes per game, and keeping him and others fresh while also chasing playoff positioning won’t be easy.

“That’s a tough one, because you also want him to be in rhythm,” Clifford said. “What we’ve really done the last couple of weeks is we basically have shorter practices, too. That’s the other way to do it. Not just the minutes in the game, but what you are doing on practice days.”

In the meantime, Walker says there is a distinctive vibe around the team this season and he’s thrilled to be a part of what the Hornets are trying to establish.

“It’s fun,” Walker said, “eEspecially the way the Eastern Conference is this year. It’s just what, maybe four, five teams that’s batting with similar records. If some teams had this record last year, you would probably have been third or fourth. But this year, that’s not really the case. It’s a lot different. So, it’s been fun.”