The Hornets needed to win just one of their last five games to avoid Tuesday’s predicament.
They lost them all.
So now the Hornets either beat the Indiana Pacers on the road or the season is over. Those were the consequences of falling from eighth to tenth in the Eastern Conference standings Sunday with a loss to the Washington Wizards.
Under the NBA play-in rules, had the Hornets stayed at No. 8, they would have played at the No. 7 Boston Celtics Tuesday. Had they lost that game, they’d still have a home game Thursday against the Pacers or Wizards for a playoff spot.
That margin for error was scratched by the longest losing streak of the Hornets’ season. What went so wrong since they beat the Orlando Magic May 7?
With assistance from the NBA’s stats database, the Observer dissected what has unraveled for the Hornets entering Tuesday’s win-or-go home play-in game against the Pacers (6:30 p.m. on TNT).
Charlotte’s shooting has been horrible
Over the past five games, the Hornets have hit bottom in shooting among the 30 NBA franchises: They were 30th in 3-point percentage (29.6%) and 29th in field-goal percentage (41.4%).
There are obvious contributing factors: They’ve been without shooter/playmaker Gordon Hayward (foot sprain) since April 2. Forward Miles Bridges was out with COVID-19 until the last two games over the weekend.
However, some available Hornets who should be shot-makers have slipped noticeably: Forward-center P.J. Washington shot 28.8% overall and 17.6% from 3 in those five games. Guard Malik Monk — who should be a prime shooter off the bench — shot 28.1% overall and 16.7% from 3 in that span
LaMelo Ball hasn’t played like ROY lately
Coach James Borrego has made two valid points in support of LaMelo Ball’s Rookie of the Year candidacy: That Ball has been the engine of the Hornets’ offense and that Ball has directly impacted the Hornets’ uptick in wins this season.
Except, not lately.
In those five games, Ball shot 36.5% from the field and 29.2% from 3-point range. In the last five games, the Hornets have been outscored with Ball on the floor at a pace of 9.2 points per game.
Borrego played Ball just four minutes of the second half and overtime Saturday against the New York Knicks, instead turning to Devonte Graham. Graham missed a 3-pointer at the end of regulation that would have clinched 8th place. However, in the last five games, the Hornets outscored opponents by about a point per game in minutes Graham plays.
Ball broke his right wrist March 20, an injury that might have been season-ending. He now constantly flexes his wrist during games and packs it in a heat wrap when he is off the court. He’s says it’s sore.
It seems apparent that wrist isn’t fully back to normal. It’s only logical Ball will need the offseason for that to happen.
Defense isn’t compensating for offense
After the injuries struck, Borrego said it was key that the Hornets hover in the vicinity of a top-10 defense to maintain what they accomplished the first half of the season.
Clearly, that hasn’t happened lately.
In those last five games, the Hornets allowed the third-highest 3-point percentage (36.6%), the fifth-highest field-goal percentage (49.7%) and the 11th-highest points per game (115.0). They lost those five games by an average margin of 8.8 points.
Clutch, no more
The Hornets managed to stay around .500 much this season despite having a negative point-differential. That was largely due to remarkable poise in close games.
Earlier this season they were on pace to have the best clutch-time season in NBA history. The NBA defines clutch time as the last five minutes of a game when the margin is five points or less.
The Hornets finished the regular season second in the NBA in clutch-time net rating — outscoring opponents by 21.9 points per 100 possessions.
However, that clutch efficiency plummeted lately: In those last five games, they were outscored in clutch time at a rate of 34.8 points per 100 possessions.
For a team that seldom blows out opponents, losing that edge in clutch time is brutal.
That the Hornets averaged just 17 points in their last three fourth quarters is telling. And maybe predictive of a short stay in this play-in tournament.