If ever there was uncharted territory, this is it.
Not only are the Charlotte Hornets embarking on the postseason for the initial time with this regime, they are going to participate in the NBA's first play-in tournament game when they take on Indiana at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Tuesday.
Call it May Madness.
"This is a new one," coach James Borrego said Monday. "I’ve never been in sort of an NCAA-type situation. In the NBA, I guess a game seven is the closest type thing. You win or go home in game seven. Same thing here. If this was a best-of-seven right now, we’d probably do a few things a little bit differently as we head into the series. Obviously right now, it’s about one-and-done."
Win and the Hornets play the loser of Tuesday night's game between Boston and Washington on Thursday, with the victor capturing the seventh. Lose and, well, it will be time to clean out those lockers until the fall.
The drama creates a few extra butterflies.
"I get nervous and I get jitters before every game," Miles Bridges said. "But yeah it’s a different type of feel because it’s win or go home. So it definitely brings a lot of feelings. But like I said this is what you play in the NBA for and I feel like everybody is ready."
They have no choice but to be. A promising season has spiraled in the wrong direction over the past month, punctuated by those rough five consecutive losses to end their season. They insist, though, that the stomach-knotting performances are in the rear-view mirror and they won't be dwelling on the squandered chances they've had leading into their play-in matchup.
"This league isn’t very forgiving," Cody Zeller said. "We’ve had a lot of games decided by five points or less, so it can go good or it can go bad quickly. There’s plenty of games through the 72-game season we can look back on, and we could have had and we wouldn't be in this situation. But this is kind of the spot we put ourselves in. So try to get a win (Tuesday) and go from there."
Here are three things to keep an eye on during the game:
Getting out in transition
Remember when the Hornets were one of the best fastbreak teams in the league prior to LaMelo Ball injuring his wrist? Statistically speaking, they technically still are among the top 10. But it surely hasn't seemed that way recently.
In their last two games, the Hornets have totaled only 13 fastbreak points. That's just a shade below the 13.6 they average per game, which ranks 10th in the league. Indiana, meanwhile, finished second in fastbreak points per game at 16.6 so the Pacers enjoy getting out and running.
Finding opportunities to cash in some easy buckets in transition is going to be extremely key for the Hornets.
"We’ve got to get out and play with pace," Borrego said. "That’s our strength. We’ve had some highly-efficient games there, we’ve had some poor ones. We are trying to get back into a rhythm with Melo back in the lineup and Miles back out here. A lot of that starts with our small-ball lineup. But obviously Cody Zeller can run, Biz (Biyombo) can run in putting pressure on the rim. So we want to get out. We’ve been successful playing this season with pace. The last two games we haven't produced and been as efficient as we have been throughout this season.
"But that is going to be important. We don’t want to play a slugfest, half-court style game. I think that’s what we’ve seen in some of these fourth quarters. We’ve slowed down in some of these fourth quarters and it’s cost us. It puts a lot of pressure on our half-court offense. But pace will be important for both teams."
After watching Washington's Robin Lopez torch the Hornets for 18 points off the bench in Sunday's regular-season finale, the thought of trying to contain Damontas Sabonis can't be too enticing.
Sabonis has utilized his 6-11 frame to terrorize the Hornets to the tune of 17.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game in their three meetings this season, posting a triple-double and coming close to registering another against the Hornets two days later.
The Hornets must do their best to neutralize that size and skill on the interior, keeping themselves from getting pounded and eaten up inside.
"Especially in the playoffs, it’s a lot more around the rim," Zeller said. "If we get through these next two games there’s (Joel) Embiid (of Philadelphia waiting). (Robin) Lopez hurt us (Sunday). So same thing. Sabonis has had a great year so far. He’s playing well, so we'll have our hands full. It’ll be group effort. It’s not just me. It will be a whole group effort to keep him off the glass. He’s a good player, so we’ll have to have all hands on deck.”
What's in the tank?
Three days, three cities.
The Hornets have stacked up their share of games over the better part of the last week. Tuesday represents the sixth time they will have played in the last 10 days and also marks their third outing in four days. The their travels have taken them from New York to Washington to Indianapolis all within a 36-hour span.
It's enough to wonder if the players have much remaining in reserve.
"They’re young," Borrego said. "We’ve got a young team. It’s been a grueling season but no excuses. This is why you prepare all year. This is why you work in the gym all summer. This is where you want to be. There’s no excuses. You’ve got to be up for this. If you are not up to this and you can’t will your mind and body into performing at its peak right now, we’ve got some problems. But this group is ready to go. No excuses. There’s enough left in the tank for sure."