It had been awhile since the Charlotte Hornets left the comfortable confines of Time Warner Cable Arena - 18 days to be exact. The loss on Wednesday to Golden State ended a seven-game homestand for the Hornets.
Despite the blowout loss to the Warriors, Charlotte ended with a 5-2 record during their stretch at the Hive. Heading on the road for the first time in over two weeks following a dismantling defeat could be difficult. Could all the positive momentum the team just built disappear that quickly?
Charlotte's 102-96 win over the Chicago Bulls on Saturday night answered that question. A total team effort led the Hornets to the victory but the team was ready from the get-go.
Charlotte hit five of their first six shots, building an early 11-3 lead and forcing Chicago head coach Fred Hoiberg to call a timeout. Nicolaus Batum was creating the offense with his command and passing while Cody Zeller was making life difficult on the other end, contesting each Bull attempt in the paint.
The Bulls were aggressive offensively out of the timeout but the Hornets matched them blow for blow. Charlotte began 9-of-15 from the field, committing no turnovers to Chicago's three mistakes. Steve Clifford's team held an eight-point lead in the final minutes of the first quarter but the Bulls were able to score the final four points of the period, including a buzzer-beater from Jimmy Butler.
Chicago used that momentum to burst out to an 8-0 run to begin the second quarter, taking their first lead of the game and forcing Clifford to call a timeout. It was a battle of bench units for most of the second quarter. Charlotte has won most of these wars this season but the Bulls were handling the Hornets early on. If it weren't for two triples from Spencer Hawes, and eight total second quarter points, Chicago could have really pulled away.
Charlotte evened its battle with Chicago's bench, finding some offensive rhythm with crafty play and nice passing to take a 52-50 lead at halftime.
Zeller may have produced his best performance of the year on Saturday night. He began the third quarter by becoming the third Hornet to score in double-figures on the night. He knocked down a handful of jumpers and was providing his usual hustle plays on both ends of the floor. Zeller checked out of the game after picking up his fourth foul but sat on the bench late in the third with 15 points and seven rebounds.
It was a sloppy third quarter for the Hornets overall, barely finding any crease on offense, getting away from the constant ball movement that fueled their successful first quarter. Despite the stubbornness, Charlotte was down just three points entering the final period of play.
It was the third time Charlotte and Chicago met this season. Last time out, Charlotte took a two-point into the fourth quarters in the United Center. Could the Hornets repay them this time around?
Hawes connected on a third three-pointer to tie the game at 79 with eight minutes to play. After a sloppy, and thus boring third quarter, the fourth was shaping up to be a memorable. The Bulls and Hornets spent the majority of the quarter trading baskets.
Batum helped the Hornets take the lead on a jumper but then Butler answered on the end with a bucket and a foul. That jumper started quite the run from the Frenchman. He connected on a trey, which ws followed by three free throws from Butler. Batum once again made a three-pointer, only to see a Doug McDermott trey tie the game at 94 with under two minutes to play.
With 1:08 to play and a tie game, Charlotte came out of a timeout with Kemba Walker handling the ball. Walker found a cutting Batum, who would find a streaking Zeller for a better opportunity. Zeller was fouled on his shot attempt, making both free throws to give the Hornets a late lead. Charlotte grabbed the rebound off a Chicago miss on the other end, setting up a dagger. Walker found a mismatch as Nikola Mirotic wound up on team's leader. Walker deployed his famous crossover, step-back and sunk a shot to give Charlotte a 98-94.
The Hornets would seal the game down the stretch with free throws, earning themselves quite possibly the biggest win of their season to date. Batum led all scorers with 24 points as Zeller and Walker scored 17 apiece. Hawes and Jeremy Lamb tallied 14 and 10 points, respectively, off the bench.
Charlotte's next test will be a quick return home as they face the Detroit Pistons at Time Warner Cable Arena on Monday night.