Yes, even the Charlotte Ranger has bad nights. Luckily, he has a posse.
On Saturday night, the Charlotte Hornets defeated the Brooklyn Nets 112-105, surviving a rare-off night from Kemba Walker, who shot just 35 percent on 17 attempts and 33 percent from 3-point territory.
The team rallied around him, getting big contributions from their bench and role players. Backup point guard Ramon Sessions was particularly stellar, going three of four from behind the arc and giving the Hornets 17 points in only 19 minutes of play.
It was the Hornets third straight win, coming on the second night of one of the weirdest back to backs in recent memory. The night before, the Hornets got arguably their biggest win of the season by defeating Conference rival Toronto Raptors 113-78; who have been locked into second place in the East for the vast majority of the 2016-17 season. That game’s 35 point win margin was the largest for the franchise in seven years; more importantly, it was Charlotte’s first win against a top three ranked conference opponent this season.
Conversely, the Brooklyn Nets, are not very good at basketball. The Nets are by far the worst team in the NBA, and at least five games worse than any other team in either conference. Still, they can be punchy and on any given night come away with a win. The Hornets are painfully aware of this — one of the Nets nine wins this season came against Charlotte on a crazy, fading three point buzzer beater from Randy Foye in Brooklyn, the day after Christmas.
Another weird aspect of last nights matchup was that the Nets were also playing their second night of a blow out, back to back that saw them defeating the New Orleans Pelicans by a 29 point margin.
The Hornets carried their momentum from the previous night into the beginning of the game, controlling the pace early and finishing the first quarter up 14 points. In the third quarter, however, the Nets stormed all the way back, and by the end of the quarter the game was tied, 81-81.
But the fourth quarter, as Hornet’s broadcaster Steve Martin loves to say, is winning time. Nicolas Batum came up big to finish the game, and was everywhere in the fourth. While he didn't have the most efficient shooting night (38 percent on 16 attempts,) he affected the momentum of the game in the most Clifford-ian of ways: straight up hustle and effort. In the final quarter Batum came up with three big steals, crashed the defensive boards and aggressively attacked the Nets defense, forcing the action and keeping the pressure on them. Baum hit two huge three pointers in a 30 second span during the crucial final stretch, the first of which he was able to draw a foul on for the four point play.
Side note: How good has Batum gotten at drawing fouls with that herky-jerky, split second shot hesitation? I can't say for certain, but in my mind only James Harden is currently better at goading defenders into these types of fouls consistently. Watching Harden utilize this over the years has often been a frustrating experience. When he’s getting to the line in excess of 15 times a game doing this against your team, you want to pull your hair out. But I gotta say, seeing Nic add this to his game has been one of the most fun sub-plots of the season for me.
While Batum finished with 16 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 steals, his partner on the wing, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, also came through in a big way, contributing 17 points and killing it on the glass with 14 rebounds.
MKG is such an enigma; its really hard to predict what his impact will be from game to game, or what type of matchup he’s ideal in. But last night he was great, and a good indicator of how the game went. you can be sure any game where MKG leads the Hornet’s stat line was probably a weird one. Last night was no different; with the Hornets jumping out to a 17 point lead on a team they are supposed to dominate, then dropping the entire lead in the quarter they have been consistently the best in all season (third quarter,) before closing it out by just out-willing the other team. All while Kemba had a poor shooting night.
The areas of concern defensively last night were all too familiar for Hornets fans: defending the perimeter, allowing opponents to jack three’s at will, struggling against an individual scoring threat and defending the paint from a good-to-elite center.
The last two of course combine in Net’s center Brook Lopez, who has been a frequent problem for the Hornets over the years. Lopez dropped 24 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists on the Hornets on 48 percent shooting. The Hornets have had problems defending true centers all year, and this matchup again highlighted the need for a mobile rim protector.
Rich Cho is notoriously tight-lipped with franchise objectives regarding roster moves, and thus far nothing has come out from the Hornet’s camp about any possible trades or targets with the impending trade deadline looming. Ideally, I’d like to see them make a run at Denver’s Jusef Nurkic or Philly’s Nerlens Noel. Both are young, mobile centers that could immediately contribute, while also having upside for growth. Whether either is really available or if the Hornets have the assets to pry them away though, is another story completely.