LaMelo Ball, Hornets continue playoff push vs. Bulls

NBA

The Charlotte Hornets tip off their stretch run with a five-game homestand that starts Thursday night against the sputtering Chicago Bulls.

Charlotte (32-33) can solidify its place in the Eastern Conference play-in tournament, and perhaps improve its overall playoff positioning with a strong finish at home. The Hornets — currently No. 8 in the East — are 17-14 at home against 15-19 on the road.

Their final two games of the regular season after the upcoming, season-long homestand are both on the road.

Charlotte recorded a road victory its last time out, beating Detroit on Tuesday, 102-99. Rookie of the Year contender LaMelo Ball scored a team-high 23 points to go with seven rebounds and six assists in just his third game back from a 21-game absence due to a fractured wrist.

“Melo made big plays down the stretch. He’s built for those moments,” Hornets coach James Borrego said in his postgame press conference. “Those fourth-quarter winning plays: big shots, big steals, big free throws. All of those add up to a winning player. So, he’s been fantastic since he came back.”

Ball scored 11 points in the fourth quarter on Tuesday, including the final two foul shots with 5.8 seconds remaining that forced Detroit’s final possession to end with a desperation 3-point attempt.

Ball’s return and standout play come at a welcome time for Charlotte, which has a variety of key players sidelined. Gordon Hayward remains out with a foot injury, as the 19.6-point per game scorer last appeared April 2.

Devonte’ Graham (knee), Cody Martin (foot) and P.J. Washington (personal) all missed Tuesday’s game and are considered day-to-day. Miles Bridges is out up to two weeks due to health and safety protocols.

Contributions from reserves such as Brad Wanamaker and Cody Zeller, who scored 15 and 11 points, respectively, on Tuesday, must continue to fill the void.

Chicago (26-39), meanwhile, comes into Charlotte on a four-game losing streak, which was extended Monday against Philadelphia with several key performers absent.

The Bulls were without leading scorer Zach LaVine in the 106-94 loss due to health and safety protocols. The Athletic reports that Lavine, a 27.5-points per game scorer, is expected to play on Thursday.

Chicago was also without Nikola Vucevic for a second consecutive game due to an adductor injury. He is considered day-to-day, while Troy Brown Jr. has missed the last eight games with an ankle injury.

The Bulls have lost 11 of their last 15, falling four games out of the last play-in tournament spot as of games played Tuesday. Of their seven remaining games, five are against opponents currently in position to make either the play-in tournament or playoffs.

Amid the slide and with the injuries — which Bulls coach Billy Donovan said includes Lauri Markkanen, whom Donovan said “isn’t fully healthy” — new Chicago players have seen opportunities.

Among them, Javonte Green scored seven points off the bench on Monday, grabbed three rebounds and finished with a plus-13 rating.

“There’s been some moments he’s been out there and he’s been good, and he’s brought some life and he’s brought some energy,” Donovan said in his postgame press conference. “He’s obviously a long, quick athlete and he’s also bright, too. He’s a smart player. He knows who he is as a player and he tries to play in the framework of who he is offensively.”

–Field Level Media

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