Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford says for sure his team has enough to reach the playoffs for a second consecutive season.
But only if the Hornets stay on script. They’re just not talented enough to deviate from a strict style of play.
“I believe we have a game where we can play well and that’s defend, rebound and low-turnover,” Clifford said. “Since Jan. 1 we’ve gotten better on defense and in that stretch we’ve been the second- or third-best defensive team in the NBA. In that same stretch we’ve been the best defensive rebounding team. When we’ve kept our turnovers down and stuck to that game, we’ve been a good team.”
And when they don’t, they lose. The Hornets lost their last three games before the All-Star break and are 22-30. That still would have put them into the playoffs as seventh seed in the East, but their hold on that spot is tenuous.
“We played three games where we didn’t defend at all and it cost us,” Clifford said. “We can’t play five minutes of disorganized offense where the ball isn’t moving. And we certainly can’t play even four minutes of no defense and no rebounding.”
Responsibility for winning enough games to retain a playoff spot falls heavily on Hornets center Al Jefferson. Jefferson all but carried the then-Bobcats over their last 30 games last season, averaging 25.1 points per game, 11.6 rebounds per game and shooting 53 percent from the field. The Bobcats went 20-10 in that span.
Can Jefferson match that performance the rest of this season?
“I have to,” Jefferson said, referencing point guard Kemba Walker’s knee injury. “I’ve got all the little nagging injuries out of the way. Now it’s about taking care of business. I’m feeling great.”
The Hornets and five other teams are contending for the last two playoff spots in the East. Several of those teams made roster shifts at or around the trade deadline. How each contender looks (records through the All-Star break):
Charlotte Hornets, 22-30
They traded for point guard Mo Williams as a stopgap while Walker recovers from knee surgery (Walker won’t be back before mid-March). A series of injuries have thrown off the rotation and forced some players (Lance Stephenson at point guard, for instance) to play out of position. This team has improved defensively but is still quite limited offensively. Jefferson has to be formidable the rest of the way.
Miami Heat, 22-30
The high and the low for the Heat Thursday were both dramatic. First Pat Riley pulled off a major trade, acquiring point guard Goran Dragic from the Phoenix Suns. Dragic was third-team All-NBA last season. Then reports circulated that power forward Chris Bosh, probably one of the 15 best big men in the NBA, might be suffering from a blood-clot issue that could potentially cost him the rest of this season. Losing Bosh would be a huge setback regardless of how Dragic plays in Miami.
Brooklyn Nets, 21-31
The Nets got younger and more athletic when they traded 36-year-old Kevin Garnett to the Minnesota Timberwolves for 24-year-old Thaddeus Young. But, at least in the short run, the move the Nets didn’t make might help them most. Center Brook Lopez stayed in Brooklyn, and though his contract is huge, he’s a factor in making the postseason so long as he stays healthy.
Boston Celtics, 20-31
The Celtics look more like a rebuilding team than one focused on chasing the playoffs, but they’re hanging around. General manager Danny Ainge acquired point guard Isaiah Thomas from the Suns, a move that gives them a burst of offensive energy. The concern for the Celtics would be the stress reaction detected in big man Jared Sullinger’s left foot.
Detroit Pistons, 21-33
It seemed inevitable that Stan Van Gundy, the Pistons’ new coach and head of basketball operations, would attempt bold moves. The first was expensive – waiving forward Josh Smith, a bad fit alongside Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. Then, at the trade deadline, the Pistons acquired point guard Reggie Jackson from the Oklahoma City Thunder and veteran small forward Tayshaun Prince from the Celtics.
Indiana Pacers, 21-33
The Pacers’ chances for a playoff spot might hinge on getting small forward Paul George back on the court. George suffered a compound fracture while playing for Team USA over the summer and the initial prognosis was he’d miss the entire season. But he’s been working out effectively and hopes to start practicing early next month That could put him back in games as early as mid-March.
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell