It’s 20 games to go until the Charlotte Hornets conclude their regular season and for just the third time since the 2004 inception of the Bobcats, it looks like they’ll make the playoffs.
A baby step beyond that would be finally winning a playoff game. A full stride would be winning a round.
They’re good at 34-28 and improving. They’ve won four in a row and 12 of their past 15. They’re sixth in the Eastern Conference and just a half-game behind the fifth-place Atlanta Hawks (though the Hawks own a tiebreaker over Charlotte).
So what will it take to clinch the playoffs and have a decent seeding? Consider this a road map for the rest of the regular season:
Former Brooklyn Nets assistant general manager Bobby Marks, now doing media for Yahoo sports, projects a team in the East needs to finish with 44 victories to lock up one of eight playoff spots.
That reflects an improvement in the East, where in recent seasons teams with records below 41-41 have slipped into the postseason.
So if the Hornets go just 10-10 the rest of the way they should get in.
About those tiebreakers
The Hornets have already clinched tiebreakers over the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls, the teams currently right behind them in the East standings through Monday’s games.
It would sure help if the Hornets win one of two remaining games against the Detroit Pistons, ninth in the East. The Hornets won the only previous game this season with the Pistons and since this is a best-of-three series, Charlotte would clinch another tiebreaker by winning either Friday in Charlotte or March 25 in Auburn Hills, Mich.
How the schedule breaks
It’s ten home games and ten road games the rest of the way and those home games are front-loaded: seven of the next eight are at Time Warner Cable Arena, starting Wednesday night against the New Orleans Pelicans.
As far as winning records (and this is through Monday’s results), eight of the Hornets’ remaining opponents have records of .500 or better, while 12 are sub-.500.
What is key?
Health, no question. The Hornets never this season had all five players originally projected as starters (Kemba Walker, Nic Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams and Al Jefferson) available for a regular-season game.
That didn’t just weaken their depth; it disrupted continuity. It took until the past week or so for coach Steve Clifford to establish true playing groups where players knew when and in what situations they would play with some certainty.
Kidd-Gilchrist is out for the season after suffering a second torn labrum in his right shoulder. But Jefferson, who had calf and knee injuries, is as healthy as he’s been all season and says he’s comfortable coming off the bench the rest of the way with Cody Zeller starting at center.
The only other current injury is reserve center Spencer Hawes, who has missed the past nine games with a lower back strain. Hawes has started some shooting drills, but is “a ways away” from being ready to play, according to Clifford.
What to clean up?
Clifford says teams intending not only to make the playoffs, but advance, need to keep improving this deep into the season. That isn’t easy, in part because practice time is limited as coaches concern themselves with conserving players’ energy. Correction comes more through video study than drills and scrimmaging.
One thing that was definitely of concern to Clifford after Monday’s victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves: Transition defense. Clifford has always considered getting back on defense a non-negotiable. That’s in part why the Hornets are second in defensive-rebound percentage but only 27th in offensive-rebound percentage; Clifford doesn’t consider offensive rebounds a priority, compared with limiting opponents’ fast-break points.
What’s to like?
Plenty. It starts with point guard Kemba Walker, who has scored 30 or more points in each of his past three games. Only once in the past 12 games has Walker failed to reach 20 points.
The June roster makeover has been a success in that the Hornets have a multi-layered offense. Though they still shoot a poor field-goal percentage (43.4 percent, 29th among 30 teams), they are 12th overall in 3-point percentage at 35.4 percent and averaging slightly more than 10 3s made per game.
With the additions of Nic Batum and Jeremy Lin, the Hornets have more playmaking options, which has taken some pressure off Walker. The Hornets now have long-range shooting, a pick-and-roll game and, with the return of Jefferson, a proven low-post scorer.
As far as their chances to win in the playoffs, Clifford says three of their key traits – low-turnover (13.1 per game, 3rd-best in the NBA), low-foul (18.6, 4th-best) and defensive-rebounding percentage (80.1 percent, 2nd overall) – are qualities that win in the postseason.
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell
Top eight teams make playoffs:
* Tuesday night game not included