Hornets making strong playoff push, won 8 of last 10 games

Associated Press
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Michael Jordan just might find himself back in the NBA playoffs.

His Charlotte Hornets (32-28) are making a strong push toward the postseason, winning eight of their last 10 games to move up to sixth in the Eastern Conference standings.

Now the Hornets have a chance to gain separation from the middle of the East pack and possibly jump up to a higher seed with nine of their next 10 games at home, including the next seven in a row. Charlotte is two games behind the Miami Heat for the East’s fourth-best record, giving them a chance to claim home-field advantage for a playoff series if they can keep winning.

“There are two things we talked about repeatedly at the beginning of the season – you want to make the playoffs, but you also want to be playing in a way that you can be a factor in the playoffs,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. “We are playing better and better, especially on the road.”

They’re playing even better at home.

The Hornets are 20-9 this season at the place they call “The Hive.”

They’ll open the home stand Friday night against Indiana, which is just a half-game behind Charlotte in the East standings in seventh place, giving added significance to the game.

“It’s important, it’s really important,” guard Kemba Walker said of the upcoming home stand. “We definitely want to take care of business. We are able to get some rest and try to take advantage of our home court.”

Clifford attributes Charlotte’s recent success to the improved play of Walker and the overall team defense. The Hornets have allowed only one of their last 12 opponents to score 100 points.

Walker, who is 18th in the league in scoring, is averaging 23.8 points and 5.5 assists over the last 10 games. He had 26 points against Phoenix and 30 points versus Philadelphia in wins on Tuesday and Wednesday night, respectively.

As Walker goes, so go the Hornets this season.

The 6-foot-1 point guard is averaging 23.5 points per game in the team’s 31 wins and 17.7 points in its 28 losses.

“He has improved every year but the jump from last year to this year is really significant,” Clifford said.

Walker is shooting 37 percent from 3-point range after averaging just 31.7 percent in his previous four seasons with the Hornets making him a candidate as the league’s most improved player.

Clifford said Walker’s pick-and-roll game has also improved dramatically, particularly how he’s learned to set up the defense.

“He has the dribble-through like (Steve) Nash used to do, his pull-up game, he is drawing fouls on the bigs and scores on both sides of the basket,” Clifford said.

Said Jeremy Lin: “He’s shooting the ball great. He’s playing with great poise and he’s definitely controlling the game. Coach is going through him and he’s doing a great job of producing.”

Now the Hornets turn their attention to maintaining momentum down the stretch, where they have six more back-to-back games.

“I know we control our own record and own situation and that’s what we have to focus on,” Lin said.

Scoot Henderson says he has skills to be No.1 pick but not hung up on it

Metropolitans 92 v G League Ignite
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Scoot Henderson came out like a man on a mission Tuesday night against the Metropolitans 92 and Victor Wembanyama — he was in attack mode. He used his explosive athleticism to get to the rim, his impressive body control to get off good shots, and his strength to finish with authority. And if the defender played back, he would drain the jumper over him.

A year ago, Jaylen Brown called him the best 17-year-old he’d ever seen. Scoot is better than that now.

Many years, Henderson would be a clear No.1 overall pick. But, not this year, Wembanyama has that crown because he breaks the mold with his size and skill set (in the NBA, height still wins out).

Kevin O’Conner of The Ringer asked Henderson why he should be the top prospect and got a confident answer.

There will be a lot of people making the Henderson case this season — and with good reason. He could be a franchise cornerstone player for the next decade.

Henderson, however, is trying not to get hung up on No.1 vs. No.2.

There’s a long list of legendary players selected No.2: Bill Russell, Kevin Durant, Jerry West, Jason Kidd, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Henderson can be one of them.

Unless Wembanyama’s medicals come back with red flags, he is destined to be the No.1 pick next June. That, however, will not be the end of Henderson’s story. Instead, it will be just the beginning.

Doc Rivers says he wants Harden to be ‘a scoring Magic Johnson’

Philadelphia 76ers Media Day
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We’re not in Houston anymore.

James Harden in Philadelphia will not be chasing scoring titles and dominating the game in quite the same way. Instead, he’s been asked to be more of a facilitator — but not too much of one. Doc Rivers told the team at ESPN’s NBA Today he wants scoring to go with the facilitating. Just like one of the all-time greats.

“I think we’ve talked so much about him being a facilitator… I need him to be James Harden too. If I had to combine, I would say a scoring Magic Johnson, I don’t know, but that’s what I want him to be. I want him to be a James Harden, but in that, I want him to also be the facilitator of this basketball team too. So in a lot of ways, his role is growing bigger for our team, and I just want him to keep thinking, ‘Do both.'”

Just play like Magic, no pressure there. For his career, Magic averaged 19.5 points a game (with four over 20 PPG) with 11.2 assists.

Harden can get close enough to Rivers’ lofty goals to make Philly a real threat, so long as defenders still fear his first step and step back. Harden can get his shot and get to the line, and he’s long been a great passer who has averaged 10.5 assists a game over the past two seasons. Now it’s just a matter of finding the balance of when to set up Joel Embiid, when to turn the offense over to Tyrese Maxey, and when to get his own shot.

Philadelphia is a deep team poised to win a lot of regular season games — the Sixers being the top seed in the East is absolutely in play. The questions Harden — and, to a degree, Embiid — have to answer come in May, when the second round of the playoffs start and Harden has faded while Embiid has had poor injury luck. In a deep East with Milwaukee, Boston, and maybe Miami and Brooklyn in the contender mix, there is no margin for error.

A Magic-like Harden would be a big boost for the Sixers in that setting.

As he chases record, LeBron says he has ‘no relationship’ with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Sacramento Kings v Los Angeles Lakers
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Later this season, health permitting, LeBron James will pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

Kareem has said LeBron has earned it, but also has called out LeBron on COVID issues (something Abdul-Jabbar apologized for). Have the two legends started to build a relationship as LeBron marches toward the record? Not so much.

“No thoughts, no relationship.”

This question was asked of LeBron days after Abdul-Jabbar slammed former LeBron teammate Kyrie Irving in a Substack newsletter, calling him a “comical buffoon” and saying he is a poor role model. Abdul-Jabbar has been a vocal proponent of getting the vaccine, Irving remains unvaccinated, and LeBron has posted on social media questioning the severity of the virus and the response. Plus, LeBron and Irving are friends, which could have sparked LeBron’s terse response (as could the fact he was ready to get out of the arena after a dull preseason game).

A week earlier at media day, LeBron had been kinder when discussing Abdul-Jabbar and chasing his record.

“And you know, obviously Kareem has had his differences, with some of my views and some of the things that I do. But listen, at the end of the day, to be able to be right in the same breath as a guy to wear the same [Lakers] uniform, a guy that was a staple of this franchise along with Magic and Big Game [James Worthy] over there for so many years, especially in the 80s, and a guy that does a lot off the floor as well,” LeBron said. “I think it’s just super duper dope for myself to be even in that conversation.”

Abdul-Jabbar has been more of a public persona in recent years, both around the game of basketball and discussing social justice issues through his writings. The NBA named its new social justice award after him. With that has come new relationships around the league.

One of those is not with LeBron. Will Abdul-Jabbar be in the building when LeBron does break the record?

We’ve got months for this relationship to evolve — if it does — before that big day.

 

Watch Zion Williamson score 13 in return to court for Pelicans

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Zion Williamson is back.

He certainly looked in better shape and flashed his insane explosiveness on his way to 13 points and four rebounds in 15 minutes Tuesday night against the Bulls, his first game after missing all of last season following foot surgery.

There was some rust, and the Pelicans are wisely bringing him along slowly and not breaking out the entire playbook for a preseason game, but in the moments we saw Zion looked like he was all the way back.

The questions now are can he sustain it, and how to the Pelicans mesh him with other scoring options in CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram.

And maybe we shouldn’t leave rookie Dyson Daniels off that list, he looked good in his first NBA preseason game.

The Pelicans are one of the most intriguing teams this season, a team that made the playoffs last season with a push after McCollum arrived, and now they add the elite interior scoring and athleticism of Zion to Ingram’s outside shot and slashing, not to mention and a solid core of role players. This team has top six potential if it can get stops. But in a deep West, nothing will be easy.