When the New York Knicks clinched a long-awaited playoff berth Wednesday night, the Charlotte Hornets were left with the longest postseason drought in the Eastern Conference.
Yet, the Hornets, trying to maintain their No. 8 seeding in the East, can improve their chances of ending that drought Saturday afternoon when they visit the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
Both teams were off Friday after playing at home Thursday, when the Knicks overcame a 17-point third-quarter deficit to edge the San Antonio Spurs 102-98 and the Hornets fell to the Los Angeles Clippers 113-90.
The loss was the third straight for the Hornets (33-37), who have lost most of their margin for error in the race for favorable seeding in the Eastern Conference’s play-in tournament.
The Hornets are tied for eighth place in the East with the Indiana Pacers, over whom they own the tiebreaker via a 2-1 head-to-head record. Charlotte cannot rise higher than eighth since it is two games behind the Boston Celtics (35-35) and would lose the tiebreaker since the Celtics won two of their three meetings this season.
The Hornets and Pacers are a game ahead of the 10th-place Washington Wizards (32-38). Charlotte would win a tiebreaker with the Wizards by virtue of a 2-1 record in head-to-head play.
The seventh- and eighth-place teams in each conference need to win just one game in next week’s play-in tournament to advance to the playoffs while the ninth- and 10th-place teams need to win twice.
If the Hornets are to maintain their seeding, they will have to do so with an undermanned roster. While forward Miles Bridges is expected to return Saturday after missing the last five games due to health and safety protocols, small forward Gordon Hayward isn’t expected to play for Charlotte unless it can get to the playoffs. Hayward hasn’t played since suffering a right foot sprain on Apr. 2.
“We’re in good spirits,” Hornets center Bismack Biyombo said. “We understand who we are and what we need to do.”
So do the sixth-place Knicks (39-31), who clinched their first playoff berth since 2013 on Wednesday night without even playing. Boston’s 102-94 loss to Cleveland ensured New York a top-six finish.
“We all talked (Wednesday) night,” Knicks forward Julius Randle said. “We all FaceTimed and talked. We enjoyed the moment. But we’re moving on. We can bask at the end of the season.”
Like the Hornets, the Knicks’ seeding situation remains fluid. New York is a half-game behind the Atlanta Hawks (40-31) and tied with the Miami Heat (39-31).
The Knicks would win the tiebreaker with the Hawks by virtue of a 3-0 head-to-head record but would lose a tiebreaker with the Heat, against whom they went 0-3. The difference between fourth and sixth is vast, as the sixth-place finisher would draw one of the three Eastern Conference favorites — the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets or Milwaukee Bucks — in the first round.
Randle acknowledged Thursday the Knicks are checking out the scoreboard to see how everyone else in the East is faring.
“Do you want the honest answer?” Randle said. “For sure. People who say they’re not watching are lying. I was watching.”
–Field Level Media