When the Charlotte Hornets host the Denver Nuggets Friday night, it’s win or go home.
Mathematically that may not be true, but functionally it is. Both teams sit on the outside of their respective playoff brackets, fighting desperately for a chance to step back in.
For the Hornets, they have been sticking close behind the pack after a midseason swoon. A win on the road in Toronto kept their hopes alive, and all season Kemba Walker has made it clear he’s not ready to accept losing as the status quo. But sitting at 11th with a handful of games to go, the Hornets need to keep winning — and get a lot of help.
The Nuggets had the spot, their season an inverse of Charlotte’s. After a slow start the Nuggets inserted Nikola Jokic into the starting center spot and took off. Since December 15th they have the NBA’s best offense, a factor of Jokic’ inspired and fearless passing and the growth of young pieces around him.
But Portland came rushing up on Denver’s heels, then took control of the eighth playoff berth in the West with a dominant showing Tuesday night. Former Nugget Jusuf Nurkic had the best game of his young career in destroying Denver’s front line. Not only does Portland have a 1.5 game lead, but with the tie-breaker they will be hard to catch.
Thus, it’s a must-win in Charlotte for both teams. The road ahead doesn’t get any easier for either squad — this is a matchup each must overcome to keep their playoff hopes alive. Fans will be delighting in the brazen intensity of Walker matched up against the cool inspiration of Jokic. Coaches will be losing what few hairs they each have in the face of the season’s true pressure cooker.
The Hornets can win this game - they just beat the Raptors in Toronto, after all. A home tilt against the no-defense Nuggets could be an easy task, but the Hornets have stumbled too much this year to take anything for granted. They will have to stay focused on the task at hand, rather than getting caught up in the many teams jostling just above them in the standings.
If Charlotte can limit Jokic’s passing and stay alert to the cuts of Denver’s wings, they can slow the offense down enough to hang tight. Walker and Cody Zeller should attack Jokic and backup center Mason Plumlee in the pick-and-roll with impunity, opening wide lanes to the basket. That’s the blueprint to win.
If Charlotte can put that plan to action, they keep their playoff hopes alive. But another loss this season means a disappointing end to a bizarre season. For a Charlotte team with little future flexibility, that will spawn much more questions than answers.