The Charlotte Hornets entered Saturday's night game against the Denver Nugets with an opportunity to make another move up the standings.
After Thursday's important win in Miami, the Hornets found themselves at 39-29, tied with two other teams in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Entering yesterday's game, if Charlotte won and Miami lost to Cleveland, the Hornets would be alone in fourth-place.
Unfortunately, Charlotte lost and Miami won and the Hornets have been shuffled back to sixth. They have the same record as Boston, the fifth seed, and are a game and a 1.5 games back of Miami and Atlanta, respectively.
The Hornets were hurt Saturday by a second consecutive slow start. Their only blemishes during the month of March have been to their last two Western Conference opponents - Dallas this past Monday, and Denver last night.
In a sloppy game there were few major takeaways but there were enough notes fans should know moving forward:
Cody Zeller's Early Impact
After some knee soreness, most people weren't sure about Cody Zeller's availability Saturday night against Denver. Despite a bruised knee, head coach Steve Clifford dropped that Zeller would not only play against the Nuggets, but he would start.
Zeller finished with 10 points, two rebounds and a career-high five blocks. His knee injury may have kept him from having a lengthy impact on the game but he certainly made his presence known with a terrific first quarter.
With a beautiful pass, Nicolas Batum found an open Zeller, who finished with a powerful dunk.
look out it's a flying zeller pic.twitter.com/HiGNJJBC6g— James Herbert (@outsidethenba) March 19, 2016
Three consecutive blocks on one possession helped Zeller reach his career mark.
Looking at Charlotte's Sluggish Start
Saturday's match-up marked the 10th game in 16 nights for this Hornets team so that may explain the sluggish start against Denver. Every night you need to find the right energy to start the game with but in nights like these, you especially need to dig down deep and find the needed, helpful energy at the opening tip. Clifford has said several times that he believes the NBA is a first quarter league as much as it is a fourth quarter one. Saturday's result shows you why he believes that. The sluggishness carried over to the second quarter, and hell, it even carried over to the start of the third quarter. It's tough to get up for every game, that's a known fact in this league. If you don't, teams can make you look bad. Denver is certainly capable of doing so but Charlotte found some energy midway through the third to keep it from being a blowout.
March Madness Connection
While North Carolina loves its Hornets, it also loves its college basketball. The NCAA Tournament has captivated the country as it does every year and Saturday's game featured a connection to one of the tournament's most famous stories.
Ed Pinckney is an assistant coach on the Denver Nuggets staff and he faced off with Charlotte assistant Patrick Ewing in the 1985 National Championship game. Pinckney tallied 16 points and six rebounds as his Villanova team upset Ewing's heavily favored Georgetown squad. Pinckney was named the Tournament's Most Outstanding Player after the game and that 1985 Villanova team remains the lowest seed to win the NCAA Tournament.
Real World: Doghouse
Over the course of the last 10 days, which has included five games, Jeremy Lamb has played a total of 16 minutes. In the last three games, Lamb hasn't played a single second. He's averaging a little over 19 minutes on the season, but he hasn't hit that mark since Charlotte's last game of February.
In the last 11 games that Lamb has logged minutes, he's scored in double-figures just once. It's sort of bizarre after that stretch of the season where Lamb was such an integral part of the team and one half of a bench duo that was leading this team to wins.
His scoring likely isn't even the reason for his benching. Knowing Clifford, it's his defense, and more specifically, his awareness of the details within Charlotte's defense.
I don't know the last time I saw a Charlotte basketball player in the doghouse this badly. Did the Hornets hire Scott Brooks as an assistant and not tell anyone?
How should we feel with the Spurs coming to Charlotte?
Fresh off their victory over Golden State, the San Antonio Spurs will head to Charlotte for Monday night's tilt at Time Warner Cable Arena.
One part of me would have liked to see Charlotte win Saturday so they could have carried momentum into Monday night's game. Another part is kind of happy the Hornets dropped the game to Denver as a loss always seems to reenergize and refocus this team.
This back-and-forth thinking is probably all for not because Gregg Popovich will rest his stars and ruin the value of this game and my Monday night.
The Spurs are coming, how do you feel?