It was the first Sunday matinee of the season for the Charlotte Hornets as they took on the defending NBA champions, the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was a close game all the way through, where the Hornets saw their end of the third quarter lead slip in the fourth, as the Cavaliers went on to win 100-93.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist returned to action after missing Friday night's loss to the Toronto Raptors, and Roy Hibbert remained on limited minutes. For the Cavs, J.R. Smith was out with an ankle injury. Mike Dunleavy started in his place.
Early on, the Hornets couldn't stop much, giving up 32 first quarter points where Kevin Love scored 15 of his 17 points in route to a 10-point deficit at the end of one. However, the transition offense was alive throughout the night and helped the team get back into the game in the second quarter.
A sweet offense to defense play early from Nic Batum and Kidd-Gilchrist:
With the help of the plays like that and the bench-unit, the Hornets took a 54-52 lead into the half. Marco Bellinelli had a stretch early in the quarter where he hit three 3-pointers, and helped the Hornets gain a lead off of a 13-2 run.
The second half, however, didn't provide much of the same. While the Hornets still managed to lead by a point after the third quarter, the bench-unit faltered. On the night, the Cavs bench outscored the Hornets' 39-30 with standout performances from Iman Shumpert and Channing Frye. Frye impressed in the second half and the fourth quarter, in particular. He hit three 3-pointers, each one of them a dagger, and scored 11 of his 20 points in the last frame alone. Strangely, the Cavs kept the same five players on the floor throughout the entire quarter with LeBron James being the only starter. That meant Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Love all sat on the bench throughout a tight, last 12 minutes. It somehow worked.
Unfortunately, the Hornets couldn't take advantage of the favorable matchup, and what was also a shaky performance from James. James finished the game strong but only shot 8/21 from the field. Credit Kidd-Gilchrist who, in his return, played a gritty game finishing with 11 points and 10 rebounds in over 41 minutes of play. Outside the Kidd-Gilchrist, the Hornets had difficulties guarding the 3-point line, which saw the Cavs make 14 3-pointers, most of which were open in the second half.
With the exclusion of Cody Zeller, the starters played well enough to win. Zeller found himself in foul trouble throughout the first half, and carried the tough outing into the second half as well. He ended the game with zero points and four rebounds; a performance he'd like to forget quickly. However, Zeller wasn't the only front court player to struggle. Frank Kaminsky only scored three points, and Spencer Hawes, who played the most minutes of them all, struggled to matchup to the opposing bigs. There's no doubt about it: the Hornets need a fully-healthy Hibbert to help plug the middle defensively and offensively.
As for Kemba Walker, the team's leading scorer put up 21 after scoring 40 on Friday, and added four assists with no turnovers. Batum also put in a nice showing with the near triple-double of 15 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.
Sure, the Hornets leave Cleveland empty-handed, but certainly showed they can hang with the best in the East. Today's loss was the first road loss of the season, and the first time the Hornets have lost consecutive games. With a 6-3 record now, the team travels to Minnesota to play a young, talented Timberwolves squad on Tuesday night before returning home to play the Atlanta Hawks on Friday.
What had been a fairly generous schedule through the first six to eight games now becomes a little tougher, but the Hornets appear to be up for the task.