Where: Quicken Loans Arena; Cleveland, Ohio
When: 8:00 p.m. EST
How to watch: Fox Sports Southeast, NBA League Pass
So here’s a cool thing — the Charlotte Hornets have won three straight games following a thrilling overtime win at home over the Wizards on Wednesday. They went 3-0 during the home stand, and appear to have shaken off many of their issues that led to the six game losing streak. However, standing in the way of making it four straight wins are the Cleveland Cavaliers, who currently hold the league’s longest winning streak at six; oh, and have winning streak against the Hornets at Quicken Loans Arena that dates back to 2010.
The three game winning streak was important considering how tough this weekend will be. Following tonight’s game, the Hornets head back home to face the Spurs on Saturday. It’s a brutal back-to-back against teams Charlotte hasn’t played well against historically. Despite how well they have looked the past three games, it wouldn’t be surprising if they dropped both.
But maybe I should be more optimistic. Charlotte is showing encouraging, particularly from players other than Kemba Walker. Dwight Howard is playing like his former All-Star self, finishing with double-double in points and rebounds in each of the past three games. He had 25 points and 20 rebounds against the Timberwolves, then followed that with 26 points and 13 rebounds against the Wizards. Best of all, he’s making his free throws, converting 15-of-24 in his last two.
Jeremy Lamb continues to perform as well. Riding steady at 16.5 points a game, he played arguably his best game of the season against Washington, finishing with 24 points and converting key buckets in the fourth quarter and in overtime.
Charlotte will need both to continue performing, particularly now that Nicolas Batum might be out again. He suffered an ulnar nerve contusion on Wednesday, and didn’t return for the second half. The good news is that he traveled with the team, but he’s listed as questionable.
Batum’s absence means Lamb slides back into the starting lineup, and either Malik Monk or Treveon Graham gets playing time with the second unit. Or, neither could happen, and Steve Clifford decides to shorten his bench like he did against Washington. My gut tells me Monk, but we’ll see.
Cleveland, meanwhile, is getting monster numbers from LeBron James, who is averaging 28.6 points, 8.3 assists, and 7.3 rebounds per game. I fully expect him to average that or more tonight given his history of playing incredible against the Hornets.
This may come down to containing the likes of Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, and Cleveland’s other rotation players. Charlotte did a solid job containing them from beyond the arc last game — James more than anyone else did the most damage — but they can’t let players like Jeff Green, who scored 13 points on 5-for-8 shooting last time, hurt them.
This is going to come down to defensive stops, and adjusting to the rotation if Batum is out. If Lamb starts, more onus will be on Frank Kaminsky and Michael Carter-Williams to get the offense moving. MCW looks in game shape now, and is providing much needed stability running the point and defending bigger guards. Kaminsky, on the other hand, needs to play with confidence.
It’s hard to believe Charlotte wins this, because they don’t beat Cleveland or more specifically, Lebron James. But, man, what a win would mean for this team as they look to climb back up the standings. Wednesday’s victory over Washington was a bit a statement in that they showed great resolve to force overtime against a legitimate playoff team. A win tonight would suggest they are ready to shake off their old demons and make a serious playoff push. Again, I can’t really fault them if they lose, but it would restore even more confidence within the locker room and with fans if they somehow manage to win.