Plenty of playoff ramifications in Nets-Hornets clash
The top five teams in the Eastern Conference have separated from the rest of the field.
The Brooklyn Nets lead the best of the rest, but the Hornets are on their heels and will try to catch them when the teams meet in Charlotte on Saturday night.
The Nets (30-30) lost their first game after the All-Star break, falling 113-99 to visiting Portland on Thursday. The Hornets (28-30) will be playing on a back-to-back after beating Washington 123-110 on Friday night to open a four-game homestand.
"Win or lose you've got to forget the last game," Nets center Ed Davis told the media recently. "We've got a big game for us against Charlotte."
The Hornets don't want to forget the last game. All-Star starter Kemba Walker had 27 points and 11 rebounds against Washington, and coach James Borrego made the first lineup change of the season that didn't involve an injured player.
In the team's first game after the All-Star break, starting forward Nic Batum moved to shooting guard, pushing Jeremy Lamb to the bench with rookie forward Miles Bridges making his first career start. Lamb had started all 54 games in which he had played.
"I wanted to balance the two groups," Borrego said in his postgame news conference. "Let Lamb come off the bench and score a little bit. I like pairing him with (point guard) Tony (Parker). ...
"Lamb was fantastic tonight. He's handled it great. He believes in what we're trying to do here. He trusts us. I think it's the right move, and it helped us tonight. But give him a lot of credit."
Batum, averaging 9.3 points before the game, scored 20 and made 5 of 9 3-pointers. Bridges had 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting.
"I think the hope here is we want to groom Miles to become one of these top-level defenders," Borrego said.
The Nets have been testing out some new lineup combinations, too, as they get healthier for the stretch run.
Caris LeVert, averaging 16.6 points, has been back for four games after recovering from a foot injury that cost him nearly three months. Veteran forward Jared Dudley (hamstring) returned Thursday after missing 16 games.
And guard Allen Crabbe has been back for five games after missing 26 because of a right knee injury. He is averaging 18.0 points in the past four games.
"I'm just playing basketball, confident," Crabbe told reporters recently. "Teammates find me within the flow of the offense. When I went out before I got injured, I felt like I was finding my rhythm; just told myself come back with the same mindset, stay aggressive out there and good things will happen."
The Nets are still waiting for the return of guard Spencer Dinwiddie, likely still out a few weeks due to a thumb injury.
Coach Kenny Atkinson is hoping he can put it all together at some point in the final 22 games as the Nets chase the playoffs.
"The issue there is our runway isn't as long. We don't have a 60-game runway to say, 'Oh man, let's figure this out,'" Atkinson said on NBA.com.
"We just need time, but we're pressed for time."
The Hornets are 20-9 at Spectrum Center and, after the Nets, close out this four-game homestand with the only visits of the season from two-time defending champion Golden State and the James Harden-led Houston Rockets.
--Field Level Media
Updated February 23, 2019