Hornets-Raptors Preview

A loss by the Charlotte Hornets guaranteed the Toronto Raptors a top-two seed in the Eastern Conference.

That same defeat dropped the Hornets to sixth place, and there is still plenty to be ironed out on their end in the season's final week and a half.

While the Raptors continue to prepare for a first-round playoff series that will start north of the border, the banged-up Hornets are hoping to jump back into position to secure their own home start when two of the East's hottest teams since the All-Star break meet in Toronto on Tuesday night.

With six games left and Cleveland holding a 3 1/2-game lead atop the East, Toronto (51-25) has started looking ahead to the postseason.

Coach Dwane Casey opted to rest DeMar DeRozan, and Kyle Lowry sat with an elbow injury in Saturday's 102-95 loss at San Antonio, relaying a message that healthy and rested players is more important than home-court advantage should the Raptors meet the Cavaliers in the conference finals.

Even with two All-Stars and a combined 45.2 points, 10.5 assists and 9.2 rebounds on the bench, the Atlantic Division winners put up a fight against the Spurs, who haven't lost at home in nearly a calendar year.

Rookie Norman Powell finished one point shy of his career high with 17, and Jonas Valanciunas and Cory Joseph added 16 apiece.

"I loved the fight. l loved the spirit," Casey told the team's official website. "The young guys came in and competed. You're talking about a potential championship team right there (in the Spurs) from top to bottom. We didn't back down."

Make no mistake, Toronto's championship chances hinge on DeRozan and Lowry, who are expected back in the lineup Tuesday when the Raptors try to improve on their 29-9 record at Air Canada Centre.

DeRozan totaled 54 points as Toronto split the first two games against Charlotte, and Lowry had 38, 18 assists and 10 rebounds.

The Hornets (44-32) pulled out a 109-99 overtime home victory Dec. 17 behind Jeremy Lin's season-high 35 points and Kemba Walker's 27, but the Raptors won 104-94 in Toronto on Jan. 1 for their third victory in the last four games of this series.

Al Jefferson did not play in either matchup and Nicolas Batum missed the first. Jefferson sat out Sunday's 112-103 loss at Cleveland with a bruised thigh, and Batum did not return after spraining his knee in the first half.

Batum ranks second on the team behind Walker with 15.2 points per game, and coach Steve Clifford said he will be cautious with him down the stretch.

"It's not the time of year to be messing with it," Clifford said. "I don't think it will be anything long term, but we need him healthy. The priority will be him getting back to 100 percent before he plays again."

Charlotte is in a tight race in the Southeast, tied with Miami a half-game back of Atlanta. After Clifford congratulated his team for clinching a playoff berth during a shootaround early Sunday, the Hornets' loss later in the day dropped them from the No. 3 seed all the way back to sixth.

Walker scored 21 of his 29 in the second half and Marvin Williams added 22, though Charlotte's three-game win streak ended with just its sixth loss in the last 26 games.

Four of the Hornets' final six are away from home, where they've already played five of the last six. They're 4-2 during that stretch but just 16-21 on the road all season.

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