Last night's loss to the Indiana Pacers about ended the Charlotte Hornets' playoff chances. Mathematically they are still alive, but at this point they are several games back, and too banged up, to inspire a playoff push.
While there's always the chance Al Jefferson could give it a go, it's more likely the Hornets shut him down, as Steve Clifford had alluded to earlier in the week. It's also unlikely Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Cody Zeller return either unless team doctors determine they are 100 percent healthy. This means more Noah Vonleh, who played the majority of the fourth quarter in last night's game. Vonleh will likely log a lot of minutes moving forward, so at the very least, Hornets fans will get a taste of what to expect from the rookie next season.
If Jefferson sits, Bismack Biyombo will get the start, which will change the focus of the offense. As it was earlier in the season when Jefferson was out, expect more ball movement around the perimeter, and more pick and roll offense with Biyombo acting as the roll man. The team should also be better defensively, at least in the paint.
While rookie P.J. Hairston should continue to see minutes off the bench, it will be interesting to see if Lance Stephenson finds his way back into the rotation. Stephenson did play in the fourth quarter against Indiana, but it's unclear whether he was on the floor because Clifford had cleared the bench, or if there is an actual spot for him in the rotation again. While I understand Clifford's reasoning for playing Jeff Taylor (defensive wing, theoretically can shoot from the perimeter), I wouldn't mind seeing Stephenson start at small forward in Taylor's place. Clifford has played small ball before, Taylor hasn't been producing offensively, and the season is pretty much a wash at this point anyways. If there is something worth doing in these final games, its experimenting with lineups.
The Hornets' opponent, the Philadelphia 76ers, are wrapping up another season near the bottom. Still in rebuild mode, they have been bad, but not historically bad, and have shown flashes of promise. For one, they have shown considerable improvement on the defensive end considering where they were last season. They rank 17th in points allowed, and 11th in defensive rating. A big reason for this has been the emergence of Nerlens Noel, who ranks 5th in the league in blocks, has the seventh best defensive rating at 98.6, and is fourth in defensive win shares (for comparison, he ranks higher than Anthony Davis in both categories). In other words, Noel has been on of the best interior defenders in the league this season. Noel has shown a lot of improvement since the All-Star break, and averaged 14.3 points and 11.2 rebounds per game in the month of March. He could be a handful for the Hornets on both ends of the court.
The key for the Hornets will be as it has been all season (but sadly not executed enough) -- play well defensively. The Sixers are last in the league in points per game (yes, they score in less than the Hornets), so it will be important they keep Philadelphia down near their season mark. Since the Sixers play at one of the fastest paces in the league, slowing the game down will help limit scoring chances.
Aside from Noel, Philadelphia doesn't have a lot of go-to scorers. Robert Covington who averages 12.8 points a game, and shoots 38.3 percent from the 3-point line, must be defended well from the perimeter. Ish Smith, who joined the team mid-season, is averaging 14.6 points per game and 6.1 assists in his last 10. Isaiah Canaan, who came over during the trade deadline and played well since joining, will likely be out.
Even short-handed the Hornets should win tonight. Aside from a few players, the Sixers don't have a lot of talent, so if the Hornets can lock in defensively they should be able to get the win. If the season is over as it appears, root for player development, and root for a healthy roster.