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Ten games may decide the Hornets playoff fate

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After a big win against the Chicago Bulls on Friday, the Hornets are currently in the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference standings. However, the race is so tight, the next 10 games could decide the last two playoff spots.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Charlotte Hornets, and Boston Celtics are in a four-man race for the last two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. What? That doesn't excite you? Upset that four teams, all under .500 for the season, have a chance to make the playoffs? Well too bad, as ex-Panthers coach John Fox would say, "it is what it is".

Although all under .500, these four teams all do something pretty well or have reasons for optimism as the season draws to a close.

Team Hollinger Rank Hollinger Playoff Odds Hollinger Proj. Remaining wins Post ASB OffRtg Post ASB DefRtg Last 10 games
Charlotte Hornets 20 0.39 7 16 11 7 and 3
Indiana Pacers 14 0.78 9 8 2 8 and 2
Miami Heat 22 0.32 7 10 10 5 and 5
Boston Celtics 18 0.43 8 15 14 7 and 3

Stats via ESPN.com and NBA.com

The Pacers won seven games in a row, before last night's loss tot the Boston Celtics, and have been great on both sides of the ball (Rodney Stuckey is averaging 19 points on 50 percent shooting over the last 11 games).

Despite losing Chris Bosh for the year due to blood clots, the Miami Heat still have Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic, Luol Deng, and mercurial center Hassan Whiteside.

The Celtics have unleashed Isaiah Thomas as an off-the-bench menace, and he is averaging 21 points per game with Boston 7-3 in those contests.

The Hornets also have hope in this playoff race. Kemba Walker has returned from injury, and although he's struggling to shoot efficiently (just 26 percent from the floor in his last two games), his play is a big upgrade over Brian Roberts. Unfortunately, the Hornets can't seem to have nice things, because in the same game Walker returned, Al Jefferson left with what is now being called a knee strain and the game before that Cody Zeller left with a shoulder strain. Both Zeller and Jefferson could return by Monday, but it appears Zeller's injury may be slightly more serious.

Getting healthy is the most important part of the Hornets' final push, as they've started to play better offensively ever since Mo Williams was inserted into the lineup (Charlotte ranks 16th in Offensive Rating since the All Star break).

Hope aside, this race could be determined over the next 10 games. One bad losing streak might be enough to shift a team's focus from the eighth seed, to the lottery. Here's how each team stacks up over the next 10 contests:

Playoff Opponents Back-to-Backs Road Games
Charlotte 4 3 6
Indiana 7 3 6
Miami 7 1 5
Boston 5 2 5

Indiana and Miami both have to face seven opponents currently in the playoffs. The Pacers roughest stretch is coming up over the next four, with games against Toronto, Chicago, Cleveland, and Brooklyn in a span of six days. Miami also has a rough next four games, playing Cleveland, Portland, Denver, and Oklahoma City (and don't sleep on Denver, they're playing great ever since Brian Shaw was fired).

Although Charlotte appears to have the easiest schedule over the next 10 games, their path is riddled with classic NBA pitfalls. The Hornets have three very tough back-to-back games, two on the road (Clippers and Bulls) and one against the Hawks at home. Also, the Hornets have some tough games against teams not currently in the playoffs, such as their next game against the Utah Jazz (best defensive team in the NBA since the All Star break), the game against Minnesota on the road (they beat Portland last week and recently fought to the wire against the Grizzlies and Clippers), and the re-match against the Sacramento Kings, who just beat the Hornets last week.

In order to remain in the playoff race, the Hornets will need to win at least five of their next ten games. Considering how streaky this team has been, it is really hard to predict them to be consistent enough to win exactly half of their games over this stretch. Fans should be hoping for another run, because seven wins over the next two weeks would put the Hornets in a great position to control their playoff destiny down the home stretch.