Improved Magic, Hornets look to end year on high note

CHARLOTTE — Two teams in far better shape this New Year’s Eve than a year ago hope to take gathered momentum into 2019 when the Orlando Magic visit the Charlotte Hornets on Monday night.

The Magic wrapped up their 2018 home schedule with a 109-107 win over the Detroit Pistons on Sunday afternoon, giving them a 16-19 record.

That’s five games better than where they were at this point a year ago, when they had the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference (12-25) and already were nine games out of first place in the Southeast Division.

The Hornets, meanwhile, are coming off a 130-126 loss at Washington on Saturday that dropped them to 17-18.

Nonetheless, that’s a 4 1/2 game improvement over last year’s mark on New Year’s, when they were tied for the third-worst record in the East (13-23) and were 7 1/2 games out of first place in the division.

The Hornets have a chance to end 2018 in a playoff position, while the Magic are just a half-game out.

The meeting will be the second of the season, with the Hornets having gone to Orlando in October and come away with one of their most impressive wins of the season, 120-88, behind Kemba Walker’s 26 points.

The output was one of 17 times this season that Charlotte has scored 113 or more points. The Hornets are 11-6 in those games.

Improved scoring is one big reason for Charlotte’s move up the standings this season. After averaging 108.2 points per game last season, they’re scoring at a 113.4 points-per-game clip this season, the seventh-best in the NBA.

If there’s been a negative for the Hornets, veteran Marvin Williams noted, it’s been allowing at least a handful of winnable games to slip away.

Charlotte has suffered losses to Atlanta, Brooklyn, Chicago, Cleveland and New York this season.

“Tonight (at Washington), at Atlanta, at Cleveland … those were games we had a chance to win,” Williams told reporters after the loss to the Wizards. “But they played a lot harder than we did and that (losing) is what happens.”

Orlando’s big improvement this season has been on defense, where they rank seventh in the NBA in points allowed (107.0 per game). Last year, they ranked 21st.

Sunday’s win over Detroit was another example of the improved defense, with the Magic limiting the Pistons to just 48 points in the second half.

Evan Fournier came through with the game-winner at the buzzer on Sunday, assuring that the Magic’s defensive effort wouldn’t go for naught.

“To win consistently in this league, it can’t be just defending,” Magic coach Steve Clifford preached to reporters Saturday. “It is balance. Balanced play is what wins.”

The season has been an offensive struggle for the Magic, who on Sunday topped 100 points for just the 19th time. They’ve gone 12-7 in those games.

Orlando shot just 38.3 percent in the first meeting.

The Magic has lost six straight in Charlotte and been held under 100 points in four of those games.