Pacers, Hornets try to change playoff woes in play-in game

Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte Hornets center Cody Zeller (40) battles for the ball against Washington Wizards guard Ish Smith (14) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, May 16, 2021, in Washington. Wizards forward Rui Hachimura (8) and center Daniel Gafford, right, look on. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana hired coach Nate Bjorkgren to help the Pacers make a long playoff run.

Instead, they need two wins to make it in.

After dealing with a season full of injuries, shoddy defense and communication problems on and off the court, Bjorkgren and the Pacers find themselves trying to extend their season when they host Charlotte in Tuesday’s play-in round.

“It is the biggest game of the season,” Bjorkgren said Monday. “We’ve talked about the one-and-done situation and our guys are aware of that. I like they way we’ve been playing, I like the way we’ve been sharing the basketball, I like the way we’ve been getting contributions off the bench and I like the way we’ve been moving the basketball.”

It could be a critical and timely change for a postseason-savvy team, especially against a foe that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2015-16 and hasn’t won a playoff series since 2001-02.

The Pacers understand it won’t be easy. They lost two of three to the Hornets this season, including the last one on their home court, but the Pacers are a 3-point favorites, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

The Pacers are trying to snap a franchise-record, nine-game losing streak in the playoffs and haven’t reached the second round since 2014. This time, they will be missing two starter — Myles Turner (right foot) and T.J. Warren (left foot) — and possibly point guard Malcolm Brogdon, who hasn’t played since April 29 because of an injured right hamstring. Brogdon will be a game-time decision.

The Pacers will be down at least one more player against the Hornets after forward Caris LeVert entered the league’s health and safety protocol.

Team officials made the announcement about five hours before tipoff and a day after coach Nate Bjorkgren said LeVert was feeling better and was expected to play after missing the second half of Sunday’s victory over Toronto with a migraine headache.

Backup guard Jeremy Lamb also has been ruled out Tuesday with an injured left knee and starting forward Domantas Sabonis is listed as questionable with an injured left quad.

Charlotte has struggled lately, too. The Hornets lost their final five games, sliding from the No. 8 seed to No. 10 and forcing them to win road games rather than qualifying with just one win.

Both teams also understand what a postseason win would do — potentially helping one team build some momentum to change directions.

“It’s a new season,” Hornets forward Myles Bridges said. “We’re here now and we still have a chance to make the playoffs. We’re thinking about winning two games and making the playoffs.”

MISSING HAYWARD

The Hornets’ struggles have coincided with Gordon Hayward’s absence. The former Butler star also will sit this one out. Charlotte is 8-16 since Hayward sprained his foot April 2 and has missed his size and experience. Forward Cody Martin also will not play because of an injured left ankle.

THE FUTURE

It’s been a messy final month in Bjorkgren’s first season.

Indiana saw its 31-year streak with a winning home record end and the Pacers have struggled in the fourth quarter. Fans complained about the team’s effort and Bjorkgren has blamed himself for reported communication problems on and off the court. All of it has spurred speculation about his future, something he’s not discussed much.

COMING UP SHORT

The Hornets won their first 22 games when starting the fourth quarter with a lead. But they blew a nine-point lead in Sunday’s 115-110 loss to Washington, something that’s become a trend lately.

“Making shots,” coach James Borrego said, explaining the recent late-game struggles. “We executed and got some great shots. … But ultimately you have to make shots and make plays to win in this league.”

ON THE ROAD

The Hornets went 15-21 on the road this season and have lost six of their last seven outside North Carolina, their only win coming at Detroit. While making the play-in round wasn’t the initial goal, Borrego still considers it “a great experience.”

“We’ll deal with those last few games this summer,” he said. “Our minds are clear, our spirts are clear, our energy is up, our spirits are up. Everything we’ve been through, we’re still standing, we’re still fighting, we’re ready to go and I expect us to have our best game of the season (Tuesday) night.”

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