The Charlotte Hornets are on a mini-winning streak that has harkened memories of their play at the beginning of the season, when they started 6-1 and seemed primed to repeat as a playoff-worthy NBA team.
The question now for the Hornets: As the regular season nears its close, is it too late for that to happen?
The Hornets have won two games in a row against two of the Eastern Conference’s stronger teams – the Washington Wizards, 98-93 on Saturday, and the Atlanta Hawks, 105-90 on Monday. Ahead is a game Wednesday at Orlando, against a Magic team the Hornets beat by 40 recently in Charlotte.
Those victories have improved Charlotte’s record to 31-39, but haven’t necessarily done the same for their chances at making the playoffs. They’re still in 11th place, three games out of eighth with 12 games left in the regular season.
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Time is growing short. But these two victories and a chance at a third against a weak Magic team (albeit with a visit from the NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers looming Friday) offer at least a glimmer of hope.
“We still believe we can get in,” said Hornets forward Marvin Williams. “I think everybody believes. We know we have a small margin for error, but everybody believes that we can make it to the postseason.”
The reasons for the improvement – and they’re significant because it has come against quality competition – can be found in what coach Steve Clifford has been harping on for several weeks.
“We got great bench play both halves,” Clifford said. “Our defense was good.”
The improvement from the bench has coincided with the return of center/forward Frank Kaminsky, who has averaged 16.0 points over the past three games after missing five games with a shoulder injury.
Guards Marco Belinelli (six points against the Hawks) and Jeremy Lamb (12) have also been solid and the team has received a boost from recently signed Briante Weber, who had three steals Monday.
“Everybody was great,” starting guard Nic Batum said of the substitutes’ play. “Marco is always great. Jeremy is great and Frank’s been huge for us the past 20 games. It’s a collective effort.”
Said Kaminsky: “Our starters have performed well the majority of the year. There’s been times the bench has come in and the level of play has dropped off. We understand that and we know that if we’re going to get where we want to go, we’ve got to play like we did tonight.”
Clifford knows the past two games are a small sample size. Still, holding the Hawks to 22 points in the fourth quarter is a hopeful sign. The Hornets also allowed Washington to shoot just 36.7 percent Saturday.
“It’s two good games in a row,” Clifford said “We’ll see. The first 33 games of the year, we were great on defense. It’s not like we’re not capable. We just haven’t been disciplined enough and we make too many mistakes. That’s been our problem.”