- Jerry Bembry
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PHILADELPHIA -- In the final minutes of Wednesday's Game 2 loss to the 76ers, Robert Traylor repeatedly kept looking over his right shoulder at the ramp leading from the Hornets' locker room. There would be no Baron Davis; he was seated to Traylor's left in street clothes. And there would no Jamal Mashburn; a chipped bone in his right middle finger had finished his night, as well as the Hornets' chances.
"We worked hard all year," Traylor would say later, a dazed look across his face. "What's happening to us now ... it's just unbelievable."
Entering the playoffs, the Hornets could have lived with being down 0-2 after playing their opening two games of their best-of-seven opening-round series at the First Union Center. They would have expected a tremendous lift from a New Orleans Arena crowd enthused about the franchise's first playoff game in New Orleans. They would have been confident they could get back into the series, considering they were one of the most balanced teams in the East.
But here's the reality: The Hornets will be lucky if they aren't swept. Mashburn won't play Saturday and could be out for the series.
Davis will play, but he won't be 100 percent. "Hopefully I'll be more mobile," Davis said. "The swelling has gone down. I'll be ready to go."
"Ready to go" is not good enough. The Hornets need the explosive ability of Davis to match that of Allen Iverson. Without a healthy Davis, the Hornets live on borrowed time.
The signs weren't good before the injuries. Davis struggled even before he hurt himself while landing after a layup in Game 1. And Mashburn, having to carry the load without Davis in Game 2, appeared tentative and did a poor job recognizing double teams before he got injured.
Mash's injury comes a year after he came down with vertigo in the playoffs last year that didn't allow him to finish the opening-round series against the Magic. Who knows what would have happened had Mashburn remained healthy last season? The Hornets got by the Magic in the opening round, but Mashburn's absence cost the team against the Nets in the conference semifinals -- just like it's costing the Hornets against the Sixers.
"Yeah, it's frustrating, but what can you do?" Mashburn said. "I feel at ease with this one because I know I'll be able to come back. It's just a matter of when."
Even if Mashburn returns during the series, it'll be too late. Instead of leading a team he thought could go deep in the wide-open East, Hornets coach Paul Silas was left in the fourth quarter of Game 2 with a lineup of David Wesley (who was strong with 24 points), Robert Pack (he joined the team on a 10-day contract in January), Traylor (3.9 points per game this season), Stacey Augmon (3.0 ppg this season) and P.J. Brown.
Saturday, the Hornets face a Sixers team that had the best road record in the Eastern Conference (23-18). With the Hornets' injury woes, the biggest challenge facing the Philadelphia is the night life of the French Quarter. "I don't think New Orleans will qualify as a city without distractions," Sixers coach Larry Brown said laughing.
The Hornets trumpet the fact that their straits are not that dire. They point to the team's second-round series against the Bucks in the 2001 playoffs when, after losing the first two games in Milwaukee, the Hornets won two at home and stretched that series to seven games.
That was two years ago with a team that was in a lot better shape healthwise (and, by the way, the Hornets lost that series). This is today, where the Hornets enter Game 3 with their top scorer out and their No. 2 scorer hobbled against a team whose offense is constant motion.
"We'll give it our best shot," Wesley said.
For the Hornets, even that won't be good enough.
Jerry Bembry is general editor (NBA) for ESPN The Magazine. You can reach him via e-mail at Jerry.Bembry@ESPN3.com.
14hMatt Walks, ESPN.com
15hMatt Walks, ESPN.com