It’s not in Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford’s nature to give up on the here-and-now, so when he said Wednesday the plan going forward is “play the young guys,” you know the season is unsalvageable.
Their presence in the Eastern Conference playoff race is mathematical at best following a 92-74 home loss to the Toronto Raptors.
The Raptors hadn’t won a game in Charlotte since 2010, but they sure made a statement Wednesday, leading by as many as 29 points. The Hornets – missing three starters plus reserve Lance Stephenson – were shorthanded and burned out.
“We were shot (whether it’s) the schedule or whatever. No juice,” Clifford said of the 33-45 Hornets.
“We’ll have to find a way to be professional” over the remaining four games, Clifford continued. “I think we’ve stood for effort and purpose all season. We have to find a way” to keep doing that.
It seems unlikely any of the three injured starters – center Al Jefferson, power forward Cody Zeller and small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – will play again this season. Stephenson aggravated a pre-existing toe injury during Tuesday’s road loss to the Miami Heat.
He wore a protective boot to the arena Wednesday and Clifford said its possible Stephenson will miss multiple games with the injury.
Clifford plans to play rookies P.J. Hairston and Noah Vonleh a lot down the stretch. The injuries would have made that likely regardless, but with the playoffs so unlikely, this is the time to start evaluating for the off-season.
“I think sometimes there’s a misconception where people say they don’t get their chance,” Clifford said. “Every guy gets a chance to prove something every day, be it film session, practice or shoot-around.
“Games like tonight (Hairston played 25 minutes and Vonleh played 23) for the rookies, for instance, those are great teaching tapes. There is a lot there that they can take with them over the summer that they can watch, and that sometimes helps even more.”
Clifford said he’ll likely cut back on minutes for veteran point guard Mo Williams, who carried a heavy load since the Hornets traded for him in February.
In contrast Clifford wants to keep playing starting point guard Kemba Walker consistently over the remaining games, looking to help him regain his form from before knee surgery in late January.
Walker was the Hornets’ leading scorer with 15 points Wednesday, but he made just five of his 13 shots from the field.
Walker certainly wasn’t alone in missing frequently Wednesday; Power forward Marvin Williams was 0-of-5 from the field. Vonleh was 1-of-7 and Hairston was 2-of-8. Gerald Henderson was 4-of-13.
“I still want to do what’s ever possible to help my teammates win games,” Walker said. “I feel pretty good, so I don’t want to use (conditioning) as an excuse not to play well. I just haven’t been making the shots I normally make.”
Walker was asked if he and his teammates are exhausted.
“At this point, who is not?” he replied. “We have been playing a lot of games and some of us have played a lot of minutes due to injuries. It just comes with the injuries.
“Guys are going to get injured. Nobody expected this kind of season, where every time someone got healthy another one went down. But other guys have stepped up.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell