As the regular season winds down, it is an understatement to say that for some teams every game counts and that the margin of error is slim for those battling for a postseason spot.
While the Atlanta Hawks are pretty much assured of playing in the postseason, their recent performances and injuries to two key players could signal trouble for their prospects in the playoffs.
For the Charlotte Hornets, who play host to Atlanta on Monday, every game is a must-win.
The Hornets (30-39) are in 11th place and on the outside looking in at the playoffs with 13 regular-season games left. But Charlotte is only four games out of the eighth and final spot after a crucial 98-93 win over Washington on Saturday.
“I think everyone knows how bad we needed this one, man,” Hornets forward Marvin Williams told reporters after Saturday’s victory.
Williams connected on four free throws in the final 9.6 seconds to seal the win.
“We’re in a tight, tight spot right now,” he said. “We don’t have very much room for error.
“We still believe we can do it, so we’re just going to have to take it one game at a time. This was a huge win for us.”
A key stat for Charlotte: The Hornets are 13-0 while holding opponents below 100 points at home.
Atlanta has lost three straight and in Saturday’s game the Hawks fell behind by 23 points in just the first 10 minutes of the game. Portland made 13 of its first 15 shots from the field and there was little the Hawks could do.
“It was the first quarter that we couldn’t recover from,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I thought we were poor defensively. I thought we were poor offensively.”
The numbers bear Budenholzer’s observation out.
Heading into Monday’s game against Charlotte, Atlanta (37-32) sits precariously in fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings. But now the Hawks are about to find out what life is like without All-Star Paul Millsap and super-sub Kent Bazemore, the heart and soul of the team.
“As a group, you have to kind of step up when a teammate goes down,” Budenholzer said. “We didn’t do that in the first quarter.”
Millsap will miss at least the next two games and Bazemore will be out even longer, which complicates Budenholzer’s plans to develop late-season consistency before the playoffs.
Bazemore left Saturday night’s game against Portland with 5:27 remaining in the fourth quarter because of a right knee contusion. An MRI on Sunday morning revealed a right knee bone bruise.
Bazemore will be treated and re-evaluated in seven to 10 days. Bazemore is averaging 11 points in 67 games (64 starts) this season.
Millsap missed the game against Portland because of left knee tightness. Not only will he sit out the game against Charlotte, but Millsap already has been ruled out of Wednesday’s game against the Washington Wizards.
Atlanta’s All-Star is averaging 18.1 points and 7.7 rebounds per game.
Ersan Ilyasova started in place of Millsap and led Atlanta with 23 points. Dennis Schroder had a game-high seven assists for the Hawks but was an abysmal 2 of 14 from the field.
“We’ve got to do a better job at the start of the game,” Schroder said. “The last couple of games we’ve been sloppy at the start of the game and that put us in a hole.”