Hornets, Clippers meet to finish off 2017

LOS ANGELES — A pair of teams in the bottom half of their respective conferences will walk into Staples Center on the final day of 2017 with their collective heads held high and a bit of a spring in their step.

For the visiting Charlotte Hornets (13-22), they started their current four-game California swing on Friday in the best way possible. Their 111-100 victory over the Golden State Warriors was their second victory in the last three games and occurred six days after beating a Milwaukee Bucks team on Dec. 23 that has a secure grip on a playoff spot 2 1/2 months into the season.

The host Los Angeles Clippers (15-19), meanwhile, have not only found a winning formula after some early-season struggles, they also were buoyed Friday by the return of All-Star forward Blake Griffin.

In an easy 121-106 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday, Griffin played 32 minutes and scored a game-high 24 points. The Clippers have now won four of their last five games heading into Sunday’s contest against the Hornets.

“First game back you are just trying to concentrate on doing the right thing and helping out,” said Griffin, who did far more than that. “I hope that every time we get an injured guy back it does give us another boost, but unfortunately we have dealt with a lot of injury so we need as many bodies as we can get.”

Indeed, the tough-luck Clippers watched one key player in Griffin return, while another, Austin Rivers, went down with a strained right Achilles tendon. Rivers’ status moving forward seems uncertain. He left the locker room Friday night moving gingerly on crutches, but was only listed as “questionable” for Sunday’s game.

Outside of center/forward Cody Zeller (knee), who is expected to be out until late January, the Hornets’ injury concerns are minimal. What they would prefer to do is to get their won-loss record in a healthier state.

Before the Hornets won two of their last three games, they had lost five of six, and three of those defeats were at home. There recent run of success has coincided with a bit of a rebirth from veteran Dwight Howard, who scored 29 points, with 13 rebounds and seven assists in the victory over the Warriors, and has averaged 15.3 rebounds over the last three games.

In some ways, the Hornets could see this mini-run of success coming.

“I bet I can run off probably four or five games where we had a chance to win, especially on the road, and just didn’t make enough plays down the stretch to kind of come away with the win,” forward Marvin Williams said, according to the Charlotte Observer. “We’ve had our fair share of opportunities to win games.”

Whether or not Howard’s recent run of strong play is enough to overcome Griffin, and center DeAndre Jordan, remains to be seen. Jordan did his part while Griffin was out, leading the NBA with 17.3 rebounds per game in the month of December, including five efforts of at least 20 rebounds.

“They have been together for so long and Blake is such a great passer,” Doc Rivers said, swooning over his big men. “(Jordan) has such a high basketball I.Q. and when you put those two things together, usually good things happen.”

The Clippers plan to lean on super-sub Lou Williams even more if Austin Rivers misses time, although Doc Rivers prefers to use Williams in a reserve role, even when he is short on backcourt players. Los Angeles is also expected to be without forward Danilo Gallinari (glute). Guard Patrick Beverley is already lost for the season after knee surgery.