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Without Batum, Hornets look to rebound against Spurs

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The Hornets lost in disappointing fashion to the Pistons a couple of days ago. Tonight, they take on the Spurs — one of the league’s best teams — without star forward Batum.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Charlotte Hornets Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a bumpy season for the Charlotte Hornets.

They’re still a few games above .500 with a record of 20-17, and that’s great. However, they haven’t beaten many good teams lately — and they’ve had plenty of chances — and seem unable to build meaningful momentum to get those wins.

This doesn’t quite feel like a team above .500.

We’ve seen it in flashes. In the fourth quarter against the Thunder, the Hornets played some of their best basketball this season. The same is true of their game against the Detroit Pistons, one they lost.

But seldom do we see them play an entire game in that zone. The Hornets have the potential to be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, but thus far they’ve just treaded water.

Tonight, the Hornets are in Texas taking on the San Antonio Spurs in the second game of their five-game road trip. The next few weeks of the Hornets’ schedule are difficult, so any win they can squeeze out would be of tremendous benefit — especially if they continue to lack consistency.

And now, injuries are beginning to pile up.

Nicolas Batum left Thursday’s game with a knee injury and is expected to miss a week or two. Cody Zeller has been working through the NBA’s concussion protocol for some time now and is a game-time decision against the Spurs.

The Spurs are playing excellent basketball these days. They’re second in the Western Conference with a record of 29-7 and have lost just two of their last 10 games. Kawhi Leonard is putting up career highs in points and assists, a testament to his and the Spurs’ work ethic and willingness to embracing change.

This isn’t the Spurs of old by any means — this is Leonard’s team, with LaMarcus Aldridge as his Robin. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are still on the roster, yes, but more as figureheads than the engines they were just five years ago.

The Hornets lost to the Spurs back in November, 119-114. It’s easy to forget the Hornets were tied with the Spurs entering the fourth quarter, and that the Spurs needed excellent performances from Kawhi and Aldridge to get the job done. The Hornets can hang with NBA’s elite.

Where the Hornets struggled against the Spurs last year was defense. The Spurs shot 51.2 percent from the field, 41.9 percent from behind the arc, and turned the ball over just nine times.

Without Batum’s size and strength, defending Leonard when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist needs a rest could prove to be a challenge. Head coach Steve Clifford might look to Marvin Williams to fill in the gaps. Then again, that leaves Frank Kaminsky, Roy Hibbert, and Spencer Hawes to deal with Pau Gasol and Aldridge. It’s tricky.

It’s a bit of a cliche, but for the Hornets to win tonight, they need to have done their homework. Beating the Spurs requires attention to detail and a thorough understanding of their tendencies. Knowing Cliff, the Hornets are likely well-versed in what the Spurs are up to these days.

A win tonight would send the Hornets into Houston with both momentum and rest. The Rockets are also playing excellent basketball. After that, they get an easy game against the 76ers before wrapping up their road trip against the Celtics on Jan. 16.