With only 18 games left in the regular season, every game is crucial for the Charlotte Hornets, who sit three games out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
The Hornets (28-36) had a chance to make up some ground on Wednesday against Miami, but as has been their problem spot of late, the defense let them down in a 108-101 loss to the Heat.
Meanwhile, the Hornets' opponent on Friday in Charlotte, the Orlando Magic, are pointing to next year and beyond, but they just might have found their point guard of the future.
In the past two games, Elfrid Payton has done his best impression of Russell Westbrook, notching back-to-back triple-doubles. The Magic (24-41) defeated the Bulls 98-91 on Wednesday as Payton scored a game-high 22 points, grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds and tied a career high with 14 assists.
He recorded his first triple-double of the season on the Magic's final possession on Monday in a loss to the New York Knicks. Against the Bulls, he had his triple-double by the end of the third quarter.
"I'm just trying to help as much as I can to get a win, trying to impact the game in different ways," Payton told the Orlando Sentinel.
His coach, Frank Vogel was more excited and happier for the former first-round pick out of Louisiana-Lafayette.
"Back-to-back triple-doubles is pretty impressive," Vogel said after his team snapped a two-game losing streak with the win against the Bulls. "I'm proud of the kid. He's had his share of ups and downs this season, but he just put together two of his best games. He did a great job tonight."
The third-year pro is now the Magic's all-time leader in triple-doubles with four, overtaking Hedo Turkoglu, who had three apiece. Magic greats Penny Hardaway and Tracy McGrady each recorded only two triple-doubles when they played in Orlando.
"E.P. is playing his heart out, leaving it all out on the floor," forward Jeff Green said. "That's why he's doing what he's doing."
Payton could have a field day on Friday against the Hornets, who are having a difficult time playing lock-down defense.
Coach Steve Clifford doesn't have to go too far back to remind his Hornets that if they have any hope of playing in the postseason, the defense has to improve.
"We can't pick and choose when we defend," Clifford told the Charlotte Observer. "We have a couple of guys that did that (Wednesday) and it got (the Heat) going. Then, they were hard to stop."
The Hornets took an 86-81 lead into the fourth quarter before a bevy of lackluster possessions culminated in just five points in the first six minutes of the final period.
The Hornets' defense faltered at the same time.
"I've got to get everybody to understand that we have to guard every trip and be more disciplined in our coverage," Clifford said. "It can't be five guys trying, then three guys not trying. That's what killed us in the first half."
Charlotte's defensive intensity picked up in the second half, but Miami was able to make the shots when the Heat most needed.
Miami attempted 41 3-point shots for the game and made 17. In the crucial fourth quarter, the Heat went 6 of 12 from beyond the arc.
"Our defense in the fourth quarter was actually pretty good," Clifford said. "You don't have to be great at (playing defense), but you've got to be organized and you have to try."
Payton and the Magic will put the Hornets to the test. Since trading forward Serge Ibaka at the trade deadline, Orlando has gone to a "small-ball" lineup with Payton being the main beneficiary.
Since the All-Star break, Payton is averaging 13 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game. He also flirted with triple-doubles two other times, coming up a rebound and assist shy against the Atlanta Hawks and missing another against the Heat by two assists.