Back-to-back defeats have cost the Los Angeles Clippers their hold on the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, while a recent surge by the New Orleans Hornets has them right in the mix.
Both teams try to improve their postseason chances when they meet Tuesday at Oklahoma City.
Los Angeles (37-39) is technically ninth in the West, but just a fraction of a percentage point behind eighth-place Golden State. The Clippers have six games remaining, while the Warriors have four to play. New Orleans (36-41) sits in 10th place, 1 1/2 games out of the final spot.
The Clippers have dropped two in a row, including a 96-86 defeat to the Dallas Mavericks on Monday, following a 7-1 stretch. Their latest loss, coupled with the Warriors’ 126-102 win over Utah on Monday, eliminated the Clippers’ cushion in the standings.
Los Angeles needs to get back on track quickly if it wants to make the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1992-93. The Hornets have missed the postseason the last two years, but have won four of their last five games to put pressure on Golden State and Los Angeles.
New Orleans beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 96-94 on Saturday, getting a boost from the return of Chris Paul. The Hornets’ standout guard had missed the previous game with a sore left foot, but recorded 18 points, including 10 straight in one third-quarter stretch, and 10 assists.
“Chris is a little fire cracker,” said Marc Jackson, who started his second straight game at center for New Orleans and had 15 points and 11 rebounds. “For him to be out there with six or seven games left in the season trying to help us get to the playoffs, that means a lot.”
Rasual Butler added 17 points for the Hornets, who won despite tying a season low by shooting 33.0 percent (30-for-91) from the field. They played without Desmond Mason, who is out the rest of the regular season with a broken nose, and Tyson Chandler, who is day-to-day with a bruised left toe that has sidelined him the last two games.
The Clippers are also dealing with injuries, as Tim Thomas missed Monday’s game with a sprained left wrist and Sam Cassell remained out with back spasms. Corey Maggette scored 24 points and is averaging 23.3 over the last three games - a boost from his 16.4 season mark.
Leading scorer Elton Brand added 20 points for Los Angeles, which is only 4-for-20 from 3-point range over the last two games.
“We tried everything we could do and we did it well some of the time, but we didn’t do it enough,” said Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy, whose team is playing the middle contest of a three-game road trip. “Defensively, I thought in the first half we did a great job on Nowitzki, but in the second half we didn’t do as good.”
The Clippers have won both previous meetings with New Orleans this season, including a 100-90 victory in their most recent matchup on Jan. 8. The Hornets have taken 12 of the last 16 meetings at home, however.
These teams meet again in the season finale April 18 in Los Angeles.