Charlotte Hornets may soon get another key player back for final week of playoff push

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The Charlotte Hornets could have power forward Miles Bridges back from a bout with COVID-19 as soon as this weekend’s final two games of the regular season.

Hornets coach James Borrego said as much after practice Wednesday. Bridges has been out the past four games under “health and safety protocols,” the NBA’s term for COVID-19 related issues.

The Hornets just qualified for the play-in tournament and are clinging to eighth place in the East, which would mean they’d have two chances to win one game next week to advance to the NBA playoffs. Bridges won’t be available for Thursday’s home game against the Los Angeles Clippers, but could be back for road games Saturday against the New York Knicks and Sunday against the Washington Wizards.

Borrego said it’s likely Bridges will be back before small forwards Gordon Hayward (foot sprain) or Cody Martin (ankle sprain). Neither of those two figures to be back before a play-in game.

Bridges, who has had a breakout season, has been exasperated with having to sit out as the Hornets chase their first playoff spot since the spring of 2016. It’s unclear how much he would be able to play once he is activated, and Borrego said he will be careful in monitoring the aftereffects of the disease.

“We’ve missed him dearly,” Borrego said of Bridges’ absence.

“Every player’s story is different — every guy has come out of (having COVID-19) differently,” Borrego said. “For some guys, it takes weeks to recover and feel better. It’s not just athletes, it’s everybody in general. We’re going to have to navigate this one very lightly. We’re going to have to monitor him and make sure his safety and his health are the No. 1 priority.”

The Hornets have had two prior COVID-19 situations involving players: Malik Monk missed the preseason and then P.J. Washington and Cody and Caleb Martin missed varying amounts of time in February. Also, assistant coach Jay Triano was recently out under health and safety protocols.

Bridges averages 12.4 points and 6.1 rebounds this season, but his impact has been much greater of late. He has become one of the Hornets’ best shooters, averaging 51% from the field, 41% from 3-point range and 86% from the foul line.

Borrego said Bridges has reached a level of impact he never anticipated this season. A big part of what has been special about Bridges this season has been his energy and drive. Borrego said that’s something they might have to manage — that his urgency to help isn’t detrimental to his recovery.

“His drive is gonna say, ‘Play me 40 minutes first night out.’ That’s going to be his mentality,” Borrego said. “He’s losing his mind over there (in quarantine) not being a part of this.

“Knock on wood, we get him back. (And then), it will just be a conversation with him, honesty with him, and our entire group making sure that he’s healthy and safe. Beyond that, make decisions on what makes sense for us on a roster/lineup standpoint.”

The race for play-in seeding

The Hornets are trying to hold off the Indiana Pacers and Washington Wizards for eighth in the Eastern Conference, which holds a significant advantage over ninth or 10th in the play-in format.

Borrego said eighth is still “very attainable,” despite the Pacers tying the Hornets in record (33-36). The Hornets hold tiebreakers over the Pacers and Wizards, who are 32-37.

Borrego said he’d love the luxury of backing off key players’ minutes this weekend, but anticipates no flexibility in the standings to do so.

“My guess is to get eight, we’re going to have to take it to the wire,” Borrego said. “I don’t see a scenario where we’re going to clinch (eighth-best record) in the next game or two. We’re going to have to play this out, these next three.”

Pacers’ remaining games: Home vs. Bucks on Thursday, home versus Lakers on Saturday, at Raptors (in Tampa) Sunday.

Wizards’ remaining games: At Hawks on Wednesday, home vs. Cavaliers on Friday, home vs. Hornets on Sunday.

Gordon Hayward, Cody Martin not close

Neither Hayward, out since April 2, and Cody Martin, out the past four games, participated in a light practice Wednesday. Borrego has no clarity on when either could return.

“Very up in the air. We’re just not there yet,” Borrego said. “Cody Martin is still a ways (away) — that is going to take some time.”

Borrego discusses his first ejection

Borrego received two technical fouls in the third quarter Tuesday, which was an automatic ejection, the first in his 246 games as an NBA head coach.

“I love coaching them and I’m going to fight with them every step of the way,” Borrego said of the ejection, which involves a $2,000 NBA fine.

“Biz (Hornets center Bismack Biyombo) said he’ll pay my fine,” Borrego said with a laugh.