After a tough loss in Detroit, the Charlotte Hornets couldn't afford to come out flat in Milwaukee. Fortunately, they didn't.
The Hornets got out to an early lead and didn't look back. Great perimeter shooting was the story on the offensive side of the ball, both Nicolas Batum and Courtney Lee hit 3-pointers early. And then Batum kept hitting shots, snagging a put-back and getting a slick layup in transition, totaling seven points very quickly. The Hornets went on a six to nothing run to push the lead to seven.
But Charlotte didn't get trapped in a one-dimensional approach. Just one night after the Detroit Pistons owned the Hornets in the paint, the tables turned. Cody Zeller drew the tough assignment of dealing with Greg Monroe, but didn't shy away from the task. Zeller swatted away two Bucks shots and scored a pair of baskets early, grabbing three ebounds to go with it. Batum ended the first quarter with 10 points to lead a Hornets team that was ready to play, shooting 11-for-20 in the first quarter. Khris Middleton was leading scorer, hitting for 11 points but it wasn't enough, 29-17 Hornets.
In the second quarter, things slowed down across the board. The first half of the quarter went by slowly and then the Bucks started to wake up. They pushed the ball well and started hitting with more consistency. And then Batum returned. It was 37-30 when Batum re-entered the game with 5:30 left in the quarter and it was all Charlotte from that point on. Batum kept hitting 3-pointers. As soon as he returned, he hit a 3-pointer that he was fouled on and turned it into a four-point play. Then he hit another three. And then another. In all, Batum scored 23 points in the half, shooting 5-for-6 from 3-point range and scoring all 13 points in a Hornets 13-2 run. Hornets end the half up 55-38.
The second half started flat for both squads, Batum heat-checking and missing his first three attempts. But then Charlotte started heating up. Kemba, who had only 4 points in the first half, put up 12 in the third quarter. It seemed like everyone for Charlotte was hitting from 3-point range and at one point, the Hornets were 13-for-22 from deep. It really was make after make from deep for the Hornets and they put 36 points on the board for the quarter, going up 90-64.
Batum had just two points, but inspired play from Jeremy Lin and Al Jefferson kept things running smoothly. After a game in Detroit where the entire team struggled to show any energy, a very different team took the floor tonight. Lin put up nine points on 4-for-5 shooting in 24 minutes, and had five steals to offset 4 turnovers.
Jefferson was working hard all night, taking high-percentage shots but he missed turnarounds and dunks everywhere. He started with one make on four attempts, but had seven points thanks to his masterful ability to draw contact repeatedly from Monroe and John Henson.
By the time this thing got into the mid-fourth quarter it was academic. It was the culmination of an expertly played game. They shot a tone of 3-point shots and made a majority of them. They worked the ball inside, they drew fouls, they limited turnovers. They got out early and kept the pressure on and when things seemed to stall out, a few key substitutions by head coach Steve Clifford got the team back on track, pushing the lead up over 20.
But it wasn't just the starters, or the bench, or the offense. The Hornets played much, much better defense than last night. Lin's five steals were huge, but they also pushed hard to get back in transition, get blocks and close out on the perimeter. A clear key to success was putting in effort and closing out. Only one instance of Giannis Antetokounmpo converting a fast break comes to mind and that's an extremely good number of times to have that happen.
Up next, Charlotte plays the 76ers in Philadelphia on Tuesday. With only nine games left, it is safe to say that game will be a must win.