After losing on the road to the Indiana Pacers on Friday, tonight's game was a must, must, must win for the Hornets. Well it wasn't pretty, or easy, but Charlotte was able to get a win against the Philadelphia 76ers.
The game started out pretty ugly, with neither team breaking 20 points by the end of the first quarter. With Al Jefferson out of the game, the Sixers were aggressive in trapping the ball handler for the entire game. This made it difficult for Kemba Walker and Mo Williams to run pick-and-roll plays, which becomes the bread and butter when Jefferson has to sit.
After the slow start to the game, both teams broke out in the second quarter. The Sixers did it from behind the arc and finished 11-for-26 from 3-point range. The majority of which were well defended, but Philadelphia had a size advantage on the perimeter all game. Players like Jerami Grant and JaKarr Sampson were shooting over Kemba Walker and Mo Williams, as coach Steve Clifford was content to run out a two point guard lineup for what seemed like three fourths of the game.
Despite the sharp shooting from the Sixers, Charlotte entered the half just down two points. This was in part due to some solid play by Noah Vonleh. The rookie, who many fans have wanted to see play much more, was impressive in limited minutes. At one point he had six rebounds in just eight minutes of play. His athleticism, length, and hustle were on full display as he threw down an incredible put-back over Nerlens Noel in the second quarter. Unfortunately it caused Noel to miss the rest of the game, but fortunately for Charlotte it showed fans just how good this Vonleh kid could be.
In the third quarter, the Hornets looked like they might take control, but unfortunately they couldn't stay out of foul trouble. This was in part due to the never ending aggressiveness of the Sixers. Philadelphia was relentless in attacking the rim, despite the consistent presence of Bismack Biyombo, who finished with nine points, nine rebounds, and three blocks on the night. When he wasn't erasing shots with blocks, he was forcing Sixers to adjust their shots at the rim. On the other side of the ball, Kemba Walker was in campaign mode, and finished the third quarter with eight points (but eight shots).
In a game that a good team would have likely ended in the third quarter, the Hornets found themselves in a last minute battle with the Sixers. With just under a minute left to play, Charlotte was down one with the ball. Out of the timeout, Philadelphia again trapped the ball handler and Kemba Walker was quickly able to breakdown the defense and find Mo Williams wide open in the corner. This would seem like the best possible outcome, but Mo is actually just 4-for-17 from the right corner this year, and unsurprisingly he missed the shot. After the Hornets took way too long to foul, the team got Ish Smith with 10 seconds remaining.
As the Sixers walked up to the line, up one point with the game seemingly in hand, it was pretty easy to consider this "just another Bobcats game". Maybe the hoops gods were in attendance and felt bad for a team that had lost countless heartbreaking games and suffered a seemingly never ending stretch of crippling injuries, because Smith missed both free throws and the Hornets had a second chance.
Coach Clifford of course drew a play designed to get Kemba Walker the ball with a chance to win the game. However the Sixers, who were aggressive denying the ball all game, were able to keep him from receiving the inbounds from Marvin Williams. That left Gerald Henderson with the ball at the top of the key. Rather than pulling up for a contested jump shot, Henderson fooled everyone by driving to the basket and made a heavily contested layup with six seconds remaining. Considering Henderson's tough game, this was a really just finish for one of the Hornet's most consistent players this season.
After all of that, the Sixers still had a chance to win the game. Ish Smith got the ball and made a nice drive to the hoop. Unfortunately for him, Bismack Biyombo smartly doubled him at the 3-point line and was able to follow him in all the way to the basket. After seeing Biyombo at least five times already in the restricted area, Smith knew he would have to throw it up high off the glass to have any chance of avoiding the shot blocker. Smith's shot with his offhand was too strong and Gerald Henderson secured the win for the Hornets.
Despite the loss to Indiana and the other countless tough defeats for the Hornets, the team actually remains in the thick of the playoff race. Brooklyn and Miami both lost tonight and despite a Celtics win, Charlotte still has a decent chance to sneak into the seventh or eight seed. Wednesdays' game against Miami is another must-win.