You know this story.
Game tied, twenty seconds left, Hornets ball. Everyone in the building knows who is taking the shot. The Lakers know it; it's one of the first bullet points on the scouting report. Everyone clears out, and one of the NBA’s most consistently lethal closers goes to work. This… is Nicolas Batum time?
The hometown crowd was treated to an incredible finish Tuesday night in Charlotte as the Hornets defeated the upstart Los Angeles Lakers in a roller coaster of a game in which the Bugs trailed the upstart Lakers by 16 points at the half, and 19 total at one point. After buckling down and scrapping their way back from that deficit, the fourth quarter became an intense, bucket-for-bucket, back and forth that culminated with the score tied at 113-113 with 20 seconds left in the game.
Hornets fans have grown well-accustomed to seeing clutch, last second heroics of Kemba Walker over the years. He built an entire mythology almost solely off of this ability before even entering the NBA, and last year was beat out only by unanimous-MVP Steph Curry in points scored with 1:00 or less left in a game that resulted in a win. The point is that dude knows how to get big buckets.
So as Batum began to work his dribble on Nick Young, it seemed sort of unclear what the plan was.
Walker hung out near half court, almost off of the television screen, turning his back to the ball and walking listlessly towards the bench as if the team was calling a timeout. With the floor cleared out, Batum made a couple of moves and then drove right on Young, getting him on his hip as he attacked towards the paint before shrugging off into fade away off one foot that banked home with a smooth precision that you could imagine eliciting a single, proud tear from Tim Duncan.
Kemba was still able to provide his trademark late game clutchness in the form of two huge rebounds down the final, critical stretch, and those proved emblematic of how the Hornets eventually pulled out this win; locking down with defensive intensity and out-working the not-quite-battle-tested Lakers. In the game’s most important moments, the Hornets did whatever was necessary to secure the win. Sometimes that means switching roles. The alpha dog scorer became a Worm-ian rebounding force. The soft-spoken, do-it-all swingman became the clutch hero.
Few people would've bet on that outcome after one half of play.
Toughness and hustle plays have come to define the Hornets under Steve Clifford. If you’re a team that’s starting both Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller, you don't really have a ton of other options. That's all well and good, but when the defensive intensity isn't there on a given night, you’re going to run into problems. That was shaping up to be the story as the Hornets allowed 73 points from the Lakers in a depressing first half that saw the full, explosive arsenal of the multifaceted young Lakers unleashed.
The Lakers shot 71 percent from behind the 3-point line in the first half. It seemed every time Charlotte would make a run, another spirit-crushing Lakers 3 would splash through the net. When the dust settled, LA had knocked in 12 total from downtown, and set their new season high for points in any half.
The Hornets definitely seemed to be playing with a lack of urgency in the first two quarters, but the main issue was that the Lakers simply could not miss. That's where a feeling of helplessness creeps in; you can tinker and adjust the game plan here and there, but when a team is collectively shooting over 70 percent on 3-pointers, at a certain point the game plan just becomes “Let's hope they don't, um...do that anymore?”
Still, there was reason to have cautious optimism for the Hornets going into the second half, due in large part to this team’s frustrating tendency to only play their best basketball after getting the crap beat out of them for a while. For a team with glaring limitations in the offensive firepower department, the Hornets are puzzlingly good at coming back from large deficits, particularly in the third quarter.
As has become the custom, Charlotte blew out of the gate in the third quarter, looking like a team that may or may not have just gotten chewed the hell out by their Coach. The came out with an intensity that simply wasn't there in the first half. Walker continued his personal trend of hot 3rd quarters, zooming around the court creating havoc and hitting a couple of quick shots to dent the Lakers lead.
In addition to ratcheting up the defensive intensity, the Hornets benefited from the Lakers’ youthful inexperience. As Charlotte remained resilient and disciplined weathering the storm, the Lakers, by contrast, began to unravel as the shots stopped falling. When things are clicking, their dizzying attack from all angles of the court can feel like guerrilla warfare. But unlike Charlotte, the Lakers don't have that designated alpha-dog, the guy who will step up and get you a bucket when you absolutely need one. D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram both show promise of developing into those guys, but for now are still too young to step into that role (19-year-old Ingram is the youngest player in the NBA). Lou Williams and Jordan Clarkson are more experienced and consistent, but fall more into a “scorer by committee” mentality.
When this type of situation happens teams typically defer to the guy who’s least afraid to take the big shot. Luckily for the Hornets, Los Angeles has Nick Young on their roster. And no one has ever been less afraid of something than Nick Young is of jacking up garbage shots in huge moments.
Trailing by two with 13 seconds remaining, the Lakers had plenty of time to run a play and tie or take the lead. The conservative move would've been to go for a quick two or try to get to the foul line. Nick Young is not conservative. The Lakers gunner curled off of a screen several feet behind the three point line, took a dribble, and launched a double-teamed, off balance fade away three that mercifully clunked off the rim and into the arms of the smallest guy on the court, Kemba Walker.
That was the second, huge rebound Walker had in the decisive 30 seconds of the game, the first of which set up the Batum shot that proved to be the game winner. This was a big win for the Hornets, coming off their worst stretch of the year that saw them drop four of five games on the road. The Hornets won this one with flat out hustle, maybe that's just this team’s destiny. The whenever they buy into that mentality, good things happen.
You can listen to more about the game below.