It's no secret that the Hornets have played some great basketball recently. Yes, they had some not-so-strong opponents over that time frame, and it is perhaps the most favorable stretch on their schedule all year, but they've needed to play this well in order to win eight of their last nine games, holding their opponents to under 100 points in all of those games, the longest such streak in the NBA this season. Their defense has, in just under a month, gone from a team-wide problem, to returning to form as one of the best in the league. Even though their offensive performance has floundered in the last three games, the Hornets have won all three on the strength of that defense, and are beginning to look awfully similar to last year's team, that parlayed a slow start into a playoff berth behind a great stretch of play in January.
That all said, the Cleveland Cavaliers will be the best team the Hornets have played since their last loss, a 98-93 victory by the San Antonio Spurs on January 14. Despite their defensive issues and their failure to meet lofty expectations, the Cavs still have one of the NBA's most potent offenses, which they've accomplished mostly by just being solid in every desirable category. Leading the way for them, obviously, is 4-Time MVP, 8-time All-NBA First Teamer, and one-time ESPY Awards co-host LeBron James, whose rumored demise has been greatly exaggerated, despite reports to the contrary. I'll give detractors that he's turning the ball over way more often than he should, and he's been far less active on the boards this season (which is weird, because it's not as if the Cavs want him to be leading fastbreaks, playing at the 5th-slowest pace in the NBA), but he's the team's best passer, shooter, and- with the loss of Anderson Varejao- probably the best defender too, although I'd be mistaken not to give a mention to Shawn Marion for that superlative.
That season-ending Achilles injury to Varejao might be even bigger than you might think. Cleveland was already saddled with a thin (or, more concisely: bad) defense, and losing their post presence has really struck them hard. Currently, Cleveland has the second-worst opponent two-point FG% in the league, and their percentage allowed from three isn't all that much better. As a result, they don't create a lot of turnovers, and they're not even rebounding that well, to prevent second-chance opportunities (their offensive rebounding, on the other hand, is actually quite good). Outside of LeBron, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love (the latter two of whom haven't exactly played up to expectations this season, but are still very, very good at this game), they don't have a ton to throw at teams. Marion is still good defensively, Timofey Mozgov has looked solid in the seven games he's played since he was acquired in a trade, and Tristan Thompson is still...an enigma, but those aren't good enough of options to get them into the championship discussion.
Of course, the aforementioned trio is still much better than anything Charlotte could offer, so the Hornets will have to counter with strong defensive play from their starting five, and an efficient outing from their bench units. Simply put: the shooting performances from the last few games will not be able to cut it against Cleveland. They'll have to do much better, and that will start with a return to pre-injury form by Kemba Walker, whose 4-17 shooting line in Wednesday's win against the Heat was uninspiring at best. Bismack Biyombo will need to maintain his stellar defensive play, and they might need some injury luck in order to get a rejuvenated Al Jefferson playing like he's not hurt during the minutes he sees coming off the bench.
It's a matchup of offense vs defense, and we definitely know which side is which. If the Hornets can come away with a win, that'll be a huge showing for them as they attempt to take that 8th slot in the East away from the Brooklyn Nets. Any team with LeBron James, though, is not an easy opponent, especially when they're at home, so don't expect anything to come easy for the Hornets tonight.