It is the same old story over and over again. The Charlotte Hornets are in a close game with an opponent, play great for a long stretch, and then just forget how to basketball when it matters most.
Tonight, it was the Miami Heat. It was an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter. It was a game where Dwyane Wade and Norris Cole did not play for Miami. It was a tip-in that Al Jefferson makes 9 out of 10...no, 99 out of 100...no, 999 out of 1,000 times.
But tonight, it did not go the Hornets' way. Such is the story of the 2014 Charlotte Hornets.
I mean, just look at how close this was.
That close. That close to a win. That close to a completely different story right now. That close to a happy Hornets team and fan base. That close to the Hornets finally being able to say the Hornets won another close one. You could not ask for a much better look from Al Jefferson there. Even Kemba Walker's closely contested shot came this close to going in.
But such is basketball. And as such, it seems like we are getting dangerously close to a code red on the Hornets Panic Level Meter, if we aren't there already.
It is a shame because the majority second half was possibly the best basketball the team had played all year. Their defense looked amazing and shut down the Heat in the third quarter, limiting Miami to just 14 points. Their defense led to easy baskets. It was the first time this year that this team looked like last year's Charlotte Bobcats.
The difference in this game was Miami's ability to hit three pointers, and Charlotte's inability to do so (stop me if you've heard that before).
With no D-Wade, the Heat did an excellent job of spacing the floor and getting numerous open threes for stretches against the Hornets' defense. This was particularly true in the second quarter, when the team scored 30 points and went into halftime shooting nearly 60 percent from the floor and 66.7 percent from three. Luol Deng destroyed the team in the first half, as it didn't seem to matter who was guarding him. He scored 19 points in the first two quarters, en route to finishing the night with a game-high 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting. Know who the Hornets REALLY missed tonight? Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (get well soon MKG). I have a hard time believing that Deng would've put up those numbers or looked as dangerous as he did if MKG was guarding him instead of a combination of Gerald Henderson, Lance Stephenson and Marvin Williams.
Speaking of Stephenson, he deserves some props for arguably his best game as a Charlotte Hornet. 17 points, six boards, team-high five assists, and solid defense overall. It looks like he is finally starting to get comfortable in the offense. Now if he could just hit a 3 from the top of the arc...
Actually, in general, if the entire team could hit a 3 from anywhere beyond the arc with some consistency. We all knew coming into this year that 3-point shooting would be a work in progress, but Lord. The team finished 7-of-21 from deep, including an awful 2-for-11 in the first half. They got back into the game with solid defense and by attacking the hoop against the Heat's (lack of healthy) bigs. Unfortunately, then the Heat got smart and packed the paint and forced Charlotte to make outside shots. That did not work out too well for Charlotte, as has been the case for most of the year.
Additionally, we need to start talking about the team's free throw shooting at some point. Coming into the game against Miami, Charlotte was shooting 71.3% from the free throw line. That ranks 26th out of 30 teams. The Hornets went 12-of-16 from the free throw line, and man what I wouldn't give from them to have shot 14-of-16 instead. Eventually, when you continually lose close games and you are missing free throws, you should maybe work on fixing that. And perhaps the team already is, who am I to say.
It only gets tougher from here, which has also been the early story of the season for the Hornets. Sunday was the first of five games in seven nights for the team, which includes match ups against the Clippers, Trail Blazers, Warriors, Hawks and Bulls. Yeah, it's basically the West Coast road trip all over again.
Oddly though, I feel better about the team after this game than I did after their recent string of losses. The team recovered from a nine-point halftime deficit to hold Miami to 14 points in the fourth and carry a seven-point lead into the fourth. They resembled the team we all expected them to be this year for the first time. It looks like things are finally coming together, which means it is only a matter of time before the wins begin to follow. Of the Hornets' 10 losses, six have come down to the final minute, and five of those games have come down to the final seconds. Eventually, the ball be begin to bounce the Hornets' way again. At least this is what I will keep telling myself.
Unfortunately though, this photo sums up every Hornets fan right now.