December 21, 2014

While Golden State and San Antonio keep winning at a record pace in the Western Conference, the surprising Charlotte Hornets have been the East's top team since the end of January.

Kemba Walker is playing a leading role for the Hornets, who hope to continue their climb by winning for the 16th time in 19 games Saturday night against the road-weary Denver Nuggets.

The Warriors have a shot to break NBA's record of 72 victories set by Chicago during the 1995-96 season, while the Spurs are on pace to break their franchise mark of 63 set in 2005-06.

They're the only teams with a better record than Charlotte's 17-4 since Jan. 31.

The Hornets (39-29), who were 10th in the East before the surge, are now in a race with barely any separation between four teams fighting for No. 3 seed. They're also just a half-game behind Atlanta as they try to capture the first division title in franchise history.

''It's fun now,'' said Walker, the East's reigning player of the week. ''It's a race. It's a battle.''

Charlotte took a big step toward reaching both goals Thursday when Walker had 21 points, seven rebounds and seven assists and Al Jefferson added 21 points and 10 boards in a 109-106 victory at Miami. The Hornets made 13 of 26 from 3-point range and rallied from a 15-point deficit.

They've been hitting on all cylinders offensively so far this month, averaging an East-best 113.8 points and making 41.1 percent from beyond the arc while winning nine of the first 10 games.

Walker has scored 26.2 per game while hitting 31 of 69 (44.9 percent) from 3-point range in his last nine. Nicolas Batum has averaged 21.7 points, 7.7 assists and 5.0 rebounds in his past three.

The Hornets seek their 13th win in 15 home games as they take on a Denver team that has given up 119.5 points per game on 53.7 percent shooting over a season high-tying four-game road skid.

The Nuggets (28-41) allowed Atlanta to shoot 50 percent - including 12 for 26 from 3-point range - in Thursday's 116-98 loss on the third stop on this five-game road swing. D.J. Augustin finished with 17 points and seven assists, while Joffrey Lauvergne had 16 points and Gary Harris scored 15.

''Maybe some guys are starting to mail it in,'' coach Mike Malone said. ''I'm not sure. But I'm not going to stand for that. ... I'll just find a group of guys that will compete and play hard.''

After averaging 18.6 points and shooting 40 percent from 3-point range over his previous nine games, Emmanuel Mudiay will try to bounce back after scoring 12 while missing 8 of 11 shots Thursday. The rookie had 11 points on 5-of-15 shooting in a 95-92 home win over Charlotte on Jan. 10, though he did help hold Walker to 11 on 3-of-12 shooting.

Danilo Gallinari scored 27 points as Denver ended a four-game slide in this series, but he's since been sidelined with an ankle injury. Kenneth Faried is also likely to sit out due to a back injury.

Jefferson wasn't available for Charlotte in January, and now fellow big man Cody Zeller could be sidelined after leaving Thursday's game at halftime due to left knee soreness.

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