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Preview: Streaking Hornets square off with slumping Magic

MUST. WIN. TRAP. GAME.

Charlotte Hornets v Orlando Magic Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

What: Charlotte Hornets (23-19) vs. Orlando Magic (7-35)

When: 7:00 PM ET

Where: Spectrum Center; Charlotte, N.C.

How to watch: Bally Sports Southeast, NBA League Pass

Injury report

CHA: Kai Jones: out (health protocols), Kelly Oubre Jr.: out (health protocols).

ORL: Mo Bamba: out (toe), Wendell Carter Jr.: out (hamstring), Michael Carter-Williams: out (left ankle), Markelle Fultz: out (knee), Jonathan Isaac: out (knee), Robin Lopez: out (health protocols), E’Twaun Moore: out (knee).

We often say this sarcastically around these parts, but tonight it’s actually true; this is a trap game.

The Charlotte Hornets have won three-straight over Milwaukee and Philadelphia, holding Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid in check late in games. Turning around to face the Orlando Magic at home, who’ve lost 10-straight, there’s at least an increased chance the team lets their guards down a bit.

Orlando’s frontcourt is extremely thin for this game, missing their top-three rotation bigs in Bamba, Carter and Lopez. On the bright side for them, Jalen Suggs is expected to make his return after missing 20 games due to a fractured right thumb suffered on Nov. 29.

Expect to see a lot of Mo Wagner at the five tonight, along with some possible small-ball minutes with Chuma Okeke or Franz Wagner manning the middle. That serves the Hornets, as Borrego can just feed PJ Washington more minutes than Mason Plumlee if need be and Charlotte’s second-ranked offense is capable of outpacing the Magic’s 28th-ranked offense and exploiting their 25th-ranked defense.

Speaking of Franz Wagner, the man is still crushing it in his rookie season. He’s flashing shot creation he didn’t show much in college while maintaining the skills he did flash at Michigan, he’s engaged defensively and most of all he doesn’t allow himself to get sped up as a decision-maker. At 6-foot-9, that’s an impressive package with more room for growth than he was given credit for as a draft prospect. Clear-cut top-three Rookie of the Year candidate.

Considering they’re the worst team in the NBA right now, the Magic have a nice collection of young talent; there’s Wagner, plus Cole Anthony is scoring a reasonably efficient 19.8 points per game, Bamba is averaging career-highs in nearly every category, Carter ranks 14th in the NBA with 19 double-doubles, and that’s before we even get to RJ Hampton or Okeke. Orlando plays hard and has talent, they’re just in tank-mode.

The first two games between these teams this season were close. The Hornets needed 31 points from Miles Bridges to get past Orlando, 120-111 in the fifth game of the season and they barely scraped by with a win on Nov. 24, 106-99. I don’t want to call it a “must-win” because they just knocked off the reigning champs twice and snapped a 16-game losing streak against Philadelphia — gotta give the guys a break somewhere. However (read that in Stephen A. Smith’s voice for full effect), this is, by definition, a trap game.