The Charlotte Hornets returned after two days off during the holidays but one particular bug made his stride back onto the playing floor on Saturday night at Time Warner Cable Arena. Al Jefferson returned after missing 11 games due to a calf strain and a suspension.
Jefferson received a rousing ovation when he entered the game off the bench in the first quarter of Charlotte's 98-92 win over the Memphis Grizzlies. Jefferson earned his first points off a jumper late in the quarter, but sadly those would be his only points of the game as the big man appeared rather rusty. He played 17 minutes, fouling out of the game entirely with eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter.
The Hornets welcomed Jefferson back as much as they welcomed the arrival of Memphis Saturday night. Recently, Charlotte connected on a team record 18 three-pointers in a match-up in Memphis. The Hornets continued that trend, hitting seven treys in the first quarter. A frustrating end to the quarter offensively though kept the Hornets from pulling away, taking just a two-point lead into the second period of play.
Rookie Frank Kaminsky knocked down a three to start the second quarter. Nicolas Batum followed with a deep make of his own as Charlotte's defense was leading to offense, building a double-digit lead. Memphis, however, was able to trim that lead down with an 8-0 run out of a timeout. The pace of the game slowed down, thanks to Memphis' Gasol-Randolph tag team but also due to fouls. Five fouls were called during a one minute stretch. Charlotte and Memphis entered halftime tied at 53.
P.J. Hairston started a perfect 5-of-5 from the field and he opened the second half with a three-point make. He began a 12-4 Hornets run to open the third quarter. Cody Zeller willed home two and-1s, completing both with free throw makes as Batum wrapped the run with a three ball of his own. A Kemba Walker lay-up and a pair of Kaminsky free throws pushed Charlotte's lead to 12. Yet again though, after a Charlotte run, the Hornets were unable to shake these Grizzlies for good. Memphis used rebounding and success in the paint on the offensive end to tie the game entering the fourth quarter. After a hot start, the Hornets finished just 7-of-20 from the field in the third quarter.
Walker started the game making his first three attempts from the floor. He had combined to shoot 7-of-22 over his last two games. In pregame, Walker was putting up extra shots to cure his mini-slump. The extra work and his famous determination paid off. He led the Hornets in a thrilling come from behind win on Saturday.
For much of the fourth quarter, Memphis held a five-point lead. Although small, Charlotte was having a difficult time carving the lead down until midway through the period. A pair of free throws from Kaminsky and a deep three from Jeremy Lin tied the game at 83-all. Walker had missed five of his last six attempts after his hot start. He used his quickness to force defenders into fouls late in the game. Four consecutive Walker free throws gave the Hornets a one-point lead late. A Grizzlies jumper gave them the lead back but a Lin lay-up, followed by a determined Walker finding the bottom of the net off an offensive rebound awarded the lead to Charlotte for good. Walker would make a pair of free throws late to seal the game in the final moments. The Hornets ended the game making 19 consecutive free throws.
Walker led the team with 22 points, finishing 6-of-12 from the field after a clutch fourth quarter. Batum earned his sixth double-double of the year after tallying 20 points and 11 rebounds. Hairston finished 5-of-6 from the floor for 14 points.
The Hornets have a day off before they welcome Kobe Bryant in his last appearance in Charlotte on Monday night against the Los Angeles Lakers.