Tom Sorensen

Clinging to playoff shot, Charlotte Hornets must play smarter

Point guard Kemba Walker might need to emerge as a leader in April if the Charlotte Hornets hope to make the playoffs.
Point guard Kemba Walker might need to emerge as a leader in April if the Charlotte Hornets hope to make the playoffs. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Last season, the then-Charlotte Bobcats entered April with a 36-38 record. The goal was to claim seventh or eighth place in the Eastern Conference. But five of their eight April games were on the road.

The Bobcats won four of the five and finished the month 7-1. They finished seventh in the Eastern Conference, one place in front of the Atlanta Hawks.

Charlotte again is on the cusp in April. The Hornets open the month Wednesday at home against Detroit. They play nine games in April, five on the road. They probably will be favored in two of the nine.

The easiest path would for Big Al Jefferson to rest his damaged left leg, quietly allow the season to end, get a slightly better draft pick and try to figure out a way to compete next season. Many Charlotte fans would like that.

But didn’t we go through this with the Carolina Panthers? There were fans who believed the Panthers did not deserve to make the playoffs. On what grounds does a sub-.500 team advance to the postseason when teams with prettier records stay home?

Remember the atmosphere at Bank of America Stadium when Carolina opened the playoffs against Arizona? I suspect some of the fans who loudly contended the Panthers were not worthy of the playoffs loudly cheered Carolina’s victory against the Cardinals.

The formula is simple: If a team can win, it wins. If a team can make the playoffs, it makes the playoffs. The record doesn’t matter. Thus does the debate end.

After the Hornets’ nasty home loss to Boston on Tuesday, they were in 11th place. Tenth-place Indiana had a game on them, and Boston and Brooklyn, tied for eighth, had a game and a half.

Yet the problem is not the teams between the Hornets and the playoffs. The problem is the Hornets.

A season ago, they offset their offensive challenges with hustle and precision. An old-school “Hoosiers” style high school coach with a whistle dangling from his neck could have sat with his players at courtside, pointed to Charlotte’s box-outs, defense and passing and said, “This is how you do it.”

The high school coach wouldn’t say that this season, at least not consistently.

The Hornets can be effective when everybody is hustling and healthy. They aren’t healthy. Two of their three best players are damaged. Small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is out with an ankle sprain. And although Big Al Jefferson plays, his left knee slows him down. Next season, I suspect, Big Al won’t be as big. Come in leaner and give the leg a break. Meanwhile, as always, he gives what he has.

As hopelessly naïve, then, as this sounds, Charlotte has a shot at the playoffs. It can’t, of course, match opponents hoop for hoop. If a game devolves into a scoring contest, the Hornets lose.

To win as consistently as they must, two qualities will be required. The first is that they have to play the way they did last April. Play smart and sound, and do every little thing as well or better than the players in the other jerseys.

The second is that a star has to emerge. Every night somebody will have to save the Hornets. The obvious candidate is Kemba Walker. Big Al will offer virtuoso one-legged moments. Mo Williams can score big in a reserve role. Gerald Henderson can on occasion be as good as anybody on the court.

Henderson makes remarkably athletic plays from the two-guard position. He has the athleticism and intelligence to impose his game on a defense. Sometimes he does. I’ve always wondered why he doesn’t do it more. This would be a fine time to start.

So: April 1, Time Warner Cable Arena, Charlotte versus Detroit. The Hornets have to win only if they plan to contend for the eighth place.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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