Hornets need a break in play-in hunt; they could get back a key player versus Nuggets

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Devonte Graham might be back with the Charlotte Hornets Tuesday against the Denver Nuggets.

Gordon Hayward definitely won’t.

Graham, who has missed Charlotte’s last four games with right knee discomfort, practiced Monday. The Hornets list Graham as questionable for the Nuggets game.

“It wasn’t high-intensity (practice), so it’s hard to really gather much,” coach James Borrego said of Graham’s participation. “Let’s see how he looks (post-practice) and tomorrow morning. That’s going to be the big indicator whether he’s ready to go or not.”

Small forward Hayward has yet to practice after suffering a right foot sprain April 2. Hayward told the Observer last week that while he’s optimistic and hopeful he will play this season, “I can’t make any promises one way or the other.”

The Hornets are hurting for players over the most consequential final games of the regular season. That was apparent in Sunday’s 112-110 home loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, when the Pelicans sent multiple defenders at leading scorer Terry Rozier in the fourth quarter, and limited the Hornets to 14 points.

They are trying to hold off the Washington Wizards and Indiana Pacers to retain the eighth-best record in the Eastern Conference. Under the NBA’s play-in format, finishing in eighth place would give the Hornets two chances to win one game to advance to the playoffs.

The Hornets are missing four players who have started this season. Along with Hayward and Graham, Miles Bridges is out under COVID-19 related protocol and Cody Martin has a left ankle sprain. Those four players average nearly 51 of the Hornets’ 111 points per game this season.

The Hornets have four games left. What’s at stake and what must happen for them to advance to the post-season for the first time since the spring of 2016:

Clinching scenarios

If the Hornets win one of their last four games, they clinch a spot in the play-in tournament. A combination of three Hornets wins and/or Wizards losses would clinch eighth place, since the Hornets hold tiebreakers over both the Wizards and the Pacers.

The last four games

The Hornets’ remaining schedule is really tough: Home games Tuesday against the Nuggets and Thursday versus the Los Angeles Clippers, then road games Saturday and Sunday against the New York Knicks and Wizards.

All four of those opponents are still in playoff contention and in position to move up or down in the standings. The Hornets clearly didn’t respond well when the Miami Heat raised intensity to playoff-like level May 2. As shooting guard Malik Monk described, the Hornets were “bullied” by the Heat.

The Wizards have their own problem

The Wizards have had an incredible comeback, going 15-4 to get into the play-in mix. However, they have their own significant injury issue now, with guard Bradley Beal missing at least Monday’s and Wednesday’s games against the Atlanta Hawks with a hamstring strain.

While Russell Westbrook has been tremendous lately, teammate Beal is the NBA’s second-leading scorer at 31.4 points per game, So this is a big hit to the Wizards.

And maybe the break the Hornets need to cling to eighth place.