Hornets playoff countdown: T-minus 7 games



Willie Green celebrates during the Hornets win over the Trailblazers

After tonight's game, the Hornets have just seven left before the end of the season and a possible playoff berth in a crowded Western Conference. There are six teams that are within five games of each other - the Hornets among them - in the bottom half of the standings, but only four them will make it to the post-season. With that in mind, we're going to keep a running tab of all the essential information and links you need to know about where the Hornets stand in the Western Conference Playoff Picture

Hornets' Record, Standing: 43-32, 6th place

What happened in their last game?: The Hornets beat the Portland Trailblazers 95-91 in one of the grittiest games New Orleans has played all season. The Hornets shot less than 50 percent from the floor and were out-rebounded, yet they managed to come back from 11 points down to win it.

The Hornets did it by clamping down defensively. After letting Portland score 31 points in the first quarter, the Hornets gave up just 19, 20 and 21 points in the next three frames. All the while, four of the Hornets five starters scored in double figures. On top of that, Willie Green came off the bench and electrified the New Orleans Arena with a four-minute stretch in which he scored 11 points, punctuated by a monster put-back slam.

This game also saw the emergence of Carl Landry as a more-than-suitable replacement for the injured David West. Landry led the team with 21 points and notched six rebounds. Chris Paul, as usual, controlled the pace of the game and notched a double-double (11 points, 12 assists).

And it all came in a game that included a flagrant foul and a scrum at mid-court that resulted in a double-technical. The Hornets fought hard and won, what more could you ask for?

What does this mean for the playoffs?: The Hornets now own a crucial tiebreaker over Portland and, should they finish with the same record, New Orleans will get the higher seed. Considering the difference between sixth and seventh in the West (where the teams now stand) is the difference between playing the Lakers or Mavericks, respectively, in the first round, this is HUGE.

New Orleans doesn't have the players to match-up against L.A. in a seven game series (or a one-game series, for that matter) but have played well enough against the Mavericks to beat them twice this season. Even more exciting is that the Hornets will play the Mavericks in their last game of the season, giving us the potential of eight-straight games against the Bees Southwest Division rivals.

Of course, David West's knee injury still looms large, but the Hornets have shown impressive resolve in his absence.

So who do the Hornets play next?: The Hornets take on Memphis this Friday, giving New Orleans a chance to clinch their second season series against a potentially playoff-bound team. Memphis is currently just a game back of New Orleans in the standings, so a win Friday will be crucial to the Hornets because it will give them tie-breakers against two teams with virtually similar records.

That's easier said than done, of course. Though the Hornet have already beaten Memphis twice this season, it was only by a combined eight points. Like New Orleans, the Grizzlies are facing injury problems of their own, recently losing Rudy Gay for the season to a shoulder injury. And also like the Hornets, the Grizz have shown resiliency since Gay went down. Most recently, Memphis beat the lowly Warriors convincingly, suggesting they'll be primed and focused for visit to the Hive on Friday.

So what does all this mean? At this point of the season, you can't overstate the value of having tiebreakers against opponents close to you in the standings. The Hornets and Trailblazers have been neck and neck in the West all season long and there's no reason to think they won't be within a few games of each other when the season ends.

We can't mention this enough: the difference between facing the Lakers and the Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs could be the difference between a quick exit and a surprising post-season run. Now that they've clinched a tiebreaker against Portland, the Hornets can focus on doing the same with Memphis. Doing so would effectively guarantee that the Hornets will be in the playoffs barring some sort of epic collapse.

Of course, no game at this juncture is a guaranteed win and there's no telling if the Hornets can keep up the quality of play they showed tonight for three quarters. In the post-game press conference, Coach Monty Williams said that his players need to embrace the butterflies and nervousness that comes with playing in big games.

Every game remaining is a "Big Game" and the Hornets better heed their coach's advice — after all, tiebreakers don't matter if you don't win enough games to qualify for the post-season — but fans shouldn't bee too worried. New Orleans has beaten every team left on its schedule except for Indiana. The Pacers are eight games under .500 but you can't overlook them; by virtue of being in the Eastern Conference, they're fighting to hold onto the eighth seed. You can't overlook teams with playoff ambitions in April, no matter how weak they seem to be on paper.

What's the short version of all of that? The Hornets surmounted a big obstacle tonight in their playoff push. Now they just need to do it again on Friday and win enough of their final seven games so that the tie-breakers they earned actually mean something. This seems surprisingly doable but, as unpredictable as the Hornets' season has been, it's still not a certainty.

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