Going into tonight's game, coach Steve Clifford likely had a laundry list of things to fix. After losing three games in a row, the Charlotte Hornets were averaging just 90.3 points per game and had suffered from some brutal first-half shooting. Kemba Walker and Lance Stephenson were both shooting under 35 percent from the field. Al Jefferson hadn't topped 20 points. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a bright spot in the first three games, suffered a rib contusion.
There was a lot going wrong and little time to do anything about it. The Hornets, coming off a loss the night before to the New Orleans Pelicans, were facing the Miami Heat, a team they hadn't defeated in 16 prior attempts. The only thing going for Charlotte was the fact that Miami was also coming off a road loss.
For what felt like the first time this season, the Hornets played well from the beginning of the game and stayed consistent throughout. Kemba Walker came out looking to organize the troops, get the ball to Al Jefferson, and defend his man. It was a while before his first shot attempt, which was a wide open fastbreak layup. Looking like a team with an identity, the Hornets were winning the battle in the paint against a smaller Heat team, likely just how the coach drew it up.
Scoring down low and securing offensive rebounds (13 for the game) early was key for the Hornets. This forced Miami to bring in Justin Hamilton, a true big man, off the bench to guard Al Jefferson. That move pushed Chris Bosh to the power forward position, where Cody Zeller defended him admirably throughout the game.
Things were going so well that the Hornets had a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter. However, the Heat would mount two separate runs. The first started with Dwyane Wade in the post against Gary Neal or Lance Stephenson. The second involved two Chris Bosh jumpers. Before Charlotte knew it, the score was 88-85 with 2:17 left to play.
Charlotte was struggling to get it to Jefferson in the paint and the ball landed in the hands of Kemba Walker, who at that point was 4-5 from the field. After sizing up his defender, former teammate at the University of Connecticut Shabazz Napier, Walker rose up for a 3-pointer that would seal the 96-89 victory.
Are you feeling good that the Hornets are now 2-3 and have a quality win? Okay, then let's review some individual performances.
Kemba Walker - 18 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds and 1 turnover
Although Al Jefferson got the game ball, this was Kemba Walker's best game of the season. He played in control, made the right passes, and was extremely efficient from the field. In addition, he did a good job defensively, shedding screens and staying in front of his man. Obviously he won't make five of six shots every night, but this is the sort of game Walker can play if he puts his mind to it. This was great to see from Charlotte's newly extended point guard.
Al Jefferson - 28 points, 1 assist, 10 rebounds and 1 turnover
The Hornet's All-NBA center got the game started with a great pass to a cutting Gerald Henderson. From that point on, the Heat were very reluctant to double team Jefferson down low. This gave Jefferson single coverage for most of the night, which he exploited regardless of the defender. He worked from both blocks, caught passes in the pick and roll, and nailed jumpers. He even made a cross court pass out of a double team and had three blocks (he now has 11 on the year or 2.2 per game).
P.J. Hairston - 7 points, 2 assists, 2 rebounds, and 1 turnover
Although not as impressive as Lance Stephenson's eight points, four assists, and 13 rebounds, Hairston is getting the recognition here because this was his best game so far in the NBA. Defensively, he was credited with three blocks, including this one:
The Hornets play the Atlanta Hawks Friday at Time Warner Cable Arena. Hopefully, the Hornets can build off a strong game and get to a .500 record for the season.