A Southern buzz Lowly Hornets suddenly gaze at NBA playoff berth

March 06, 1992|By Rick Bonnell | Rick Bonnell,Charlotte Observer

NEW YORK -- That faint but growing hope of making the playoffs is having strange effects on the Charlotte Hornets.

Dell Curry: "When I glance at the standings now, I start from the bottom and work my way up."

Kendall Gill: "I was upset when Chicago didn't beat Indiana this week."

The Hornets are hesitant to admit it, but they are conscious of the playoff race. Their five-game winning streak is the longest in the NBA. Entering last night's games, the Hornets were 4 1/2 games out of a tie with the New Jersey Nets and Miami Heat for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. The top eight teams in each conference make the playoffs.

The chance of Charlotte making up those 4 1/2 games is still remote -- the Nets, Heat, Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks all stand between the Hornets and the playoffs. But the mere idea that Charlotte has a shot has made the Hornets livelier in March than ever before.

"We should think about [making the playoffs]. This gives us something to play for, something to shoot at," Hornets center Kenny Gattison said. "And no, it's not too much ground to make up."

In one sense, that's true. The Hornets' recent hot streak of 10 wins in 13 games already has cut five games out of the Hornets' deficit in the playoff hunt. But making up those last 4 1/2 games, with all the involved teams playing each other down the stretch, will be extremely difficult.

"I'm the most optimistic person in the world, but it would take a miracle," Hornets coach Allan Bristow said. "I'll have a better feel after the three games coming up [at New York, home against Minnesota and at Dallas]. But even if we won those three, it would take a minor miracle to do it."

Bristow is worried that a playoff goal could become more a distraction than an incentive, particularly if the Hornets cool off and drop out of the race.

"I don't want them losing their focus after we're out of it," Bristow said.

That thought also has occurred to veteran center Mike Gminski, who has the most playoff experience among the Hornets -- seven appearances with New Jersey and Philadelphia. Gminski said it's dangerous if the Hornets start counting games the way some investors track stock quotations.

But Gminski also knows the Hornets could do it, and he speaks from personal experience.

"We can't sit down, look at the schedule and start counting wins and losses," Gminski said. "The way we got here was playing one game at a time, and not looking ahead."

Still ...

"There's a lot of sloshing around at the bottom of the divisional races, a lot of teams wallowing in mediocrity," Gminski said. "Strange things are happening in this league, and one thing that's not strange is us -- we're playing very good basketball."

Gminski cited the Nets team he played for under Larry Brown that started 2-12 but finished the regular season with 48 victories. He also noted that the season the Seattle SuperSonics won the NBA title, they started 6-16.

"It's a long season. Teams surge and fade, and it takes a while to get going sometimes," Gminski said. "We've got as good a chance as any of these teams."

The biggest thing working for the Hornets is the weakness in the middle of the Eastern Conference this season. If the season ended today, the seventh and eighth seeds would have sub-.500 records.

The biggest thing working against the Hornets is their schedule down the stretch. Thirteen of the remaining 24 games are on the road.

Winning road games is so rare in the NBA that many coaches, Bristow included, chart their records with a plus-minus system.

Essentially, a team gets a plus-one for winning on the road and a minus-one for losing at home. Breaking even in that system virtually locks up a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference this season.

Under that system, the Hornets are a minus-8, a huge disadvantage. By comparison, Miami and Indiana are each minus-2, New Jersey is minus-3 and Milwaukee is minus-4.

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