Last night’s 104-98 win over the the Utah Jazz fell into the similar formula of many their wins this season — fall behind early after a poor first quarter, keep the game within reach, then turn it around in the second half and push away with a strong fourth quarter. This isn’t something that can sustain itself, and the team knows it, but they’re figuring out ways to grind back and get wins, and they’re currently tied for the best record in the NBA.
But poor first quarters and strong fourths aren’t what I’m here to talk about it. Instead, we should take a closer look Charlotte’s bench, which had been a point of contention heading into this season. Who would replace the scoring of Jeremy Lin and Al Jefferson? Apparently no one, according to a lot of pundits, because Charlotte’s bench was supposed to be a crutch.
Last night it wasn’t. Clifford only went nine deep, but the four players off the bench combined for 41 points, and played an important role down the stretch. Marco Belinelli finished with 13 points on 5-7 shooting to go with three assists and three rebounds. Frank Kaminsky scored 13 on 6-10 shooting, and had five rebounds and three assists. Spencer Hawes looked in particularly good spirits as well, adding 11 points, three rebounds, and three assists. Charlotte’s entire bench finished in the plus column of +/-, even Ramon Sessions, who’s four points on 1-5 shooting and two assists were the outlier in what was otherwise a strong outing from the second unit.
In particular, the bench was crucial in Charlotte taking the lead in the fourth quarter. Down 80-76 with roughly 11 minutes remaining, Kaminsky would score and draw the foul to cut the lead in half (he’d miss the free throw). During Utah’s next possession, Hawes would force Joe Johnson to turn it over, which would lead to a Sessions layup that would tie the game. Hawes would then block Shelvin Mack on the ensuing possession, then assist Belinelli to give Charlotte the lead.
This all happened in under a minute, and it was the turning point in the game. Charlotte had cut it close entering the quarter, but this series of plays completed the comeback. The Jazz would take a one point lead on two more occassions, but their last lead at 85-84 would be ended off a Kaminsky shot with 7:20 remaining. Kaminsky would then provide the assist for Marvin Williams roughly a minute later to give the team a four point lead.
Charlotte’s bench put them in the right position to win last night. When the starters were all back in at the 3:19 mark, the Hornets held a six point lead. Kemba Walker had already begun to make clutch shots, and momentum was on their side.
I don’t know if this is the return of Bench Force One, but it’s certainly a good early sign that one of the team’s “weaknesses” is contributing to wins. For all my criticisms of Hawes, he’s played well in the absence of Roy Hibbert, and he’s making a case to remain in the rotation after Hibbert returns. Belinelli is picking up the slack on the perimeter with Jeremy Lamb out and Sessions struggling, and looks more comfortable in the offense with each passing game. And while Kaminsky’s defense is leaving a lot to be desired (he was picked on by two or three Jazz players in the first half), he’s currently averaging 11.4 points a game, which is slightly more than Williams, and he’s doing it in five less minutes per game.
The rotations will change once Hibbert and Lamb return, but through seven games, the Hornets look like a deeper team than previously thought.