The Indiana Pacers and Charlotte Hornets will be carrying the momentum of winning streaks when they face off Tuesday night in North Carolina.
Both Eastern Conference clubs endured three-game losing skids earlier in the season but have since turned things around with the help of some surprising sources.
With Myles Turner (sprained ankle) and Domantas Sabonis (strained calf) out of action, the Pacers turned to Goga Bitadze and T.J. Leaf for a pair of home wins that extended their winning streak to three games.
Bitadze came off the bench to contribute 10 points, nine rebounds and four blocks to a 102-95 win over Cleveland on Friday, then chipped in with nine points, four rebounds and four more blocks in a 108-95 victory over Chicago on Sunday after getting a promotion to the starting lineup.
Leaf, meanwhile, went back to his familiar spot on the bench Sunday and produced a 13-point, 15-rebound double-double, allowing Indiana to sweep its two-game homestand.
The young big men figure to get more big minutes against the Hornets, with Turner out at least another week and Sabonis questionable at best.
“I’m working on it every day, getting stronger, more athletic, explosive and ready to go out there and challenge shots and get rebounds,” the 20-year-old Bitadze assured reporters last week. “I think I’m strong enough, and I can hit some guys, show guys I’m not here to get bullied.”
With Bitadze’s shot-blocking on display, defense was at the heart of the Pacers’ home sweep, limiting the Bulls and Cavaliers to 95 points apiece.
Defense also was Indiana’s key to success last season against the Hornets when the Pacers won the last two meetings between the teams by holding Charlotte to 90 and 95 points.
And that was when Charlotte employed Kemba Walker. The Hornets have struggled offensively without their standout point guard this season, scoring more than 101 points twice in their last five games.
Charlotte lost the first three of those five games, but salvaged a 2-2 West Coast swing with their second-best offensive output of the season in a 118-111 win at Sacramento last Wednesday and their best defensive effort in a 93-87 triumph at Golden State on Saturday.
The Warriors were without Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and D’Angelo Russell in Charlotte’s trip finale, yet still managed to lead 55-50 at halftime.
The Hornets took a different mindset into the second half, coach James Borrego insisted, one he is confident his club will retain against the short-handed Pacers.
“I give our guys a lot of credit in the second half,” he noted to reporters after the game. “We turned it up, our physicality, our aggressiveness, our defense, our attention to detail and then on the board especially. On the offensive board, we had more resolve there, more urgency to the ball.”
Dwayne Bacon had three of those offensive rebounds and six total to go with a team-high 25 points in his sixth straight start. He’d started just 19 of the first 96 games in his career.
–Field Level Media