In the locker room after the latest disappointing loss in this disappointing season for the Charlotte Hornets, Nic Batum was brutally honest.
“Every time, we’re right there,” Batum said after Charlotte’s 104-98 loss to the Miami Heat on Friday. “We’ve got to find a way, with 13 guys having the same goal. We’ve just got to get there and have the same goal.
“Play together, play as a team, and play for what is right in front of the jersey, not what’s on the back. That’s what we need to do.”
Friday’s loss to the Heat dropped the Hornets to 10-18 on the season, and while it’s only December, the team is already on the precipice of falling out of the playoff hunt entirely. For a roster that coach Steve Clifford – who has missed several games to deal with health issues – deemed the most talented of his five teams in Charlotte, that would be disastrous.
That’s especially true when you consider the play of the team’s two best players, Kemba Walker and Dwight Howard. Walker finished with 25 points on Friday, by far the most of any player on either team. Howard had his eighth game this season with at least 15 points and 15 rebounds, most in the NBA. And Batum, he of the locker room expression, had 10 assists while working back from elbow soreness.
And yet, the Hornets lost by six in a game that required an incredible comeback just to make it close.
“We’re losing, but the last five games, we start the game pretty well, every time,” Batum said, “and we get a lead, we let it go, and then we’ve got to fight back. And we have to find a way to be consistent and win those games because we can’t let that go every time.”
That formula followed true to course at the Spectrum Center, even as Miami played without its best player, Gastonia native Hassan Whiteside. The Hornets didn’t lead for long in the first quarter, but they were certainly competitive and kept the game close by halftime. Trailing 53-47 at the break, considering the team shot 27.3 percent in the first quarter, was actually somewhat impressive.
Really, it was a testament to the Hornets’ fight, something they haven’t lost this year in spite of the losing, the injuries to Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky and just about everyone else, and even in spite of missing their coach. That fight, then, is the reason the Hornets were able to topple a 17-point deficit, bring the game to within two points, and then come up essentially a rebound short of tying the game.
“We’re not slacking,” associate head coach Stephen Silas said. “We’re not not playing hard at all.”
Rather, it’s a litany of on-the-court issues that keep reoccurring, like Batum said.
Like points in the paint, for example. That’s something that should have been an easy Charlotte advantage with Whiteside out. And while Howard had his 16th double-double of the season, finishing with 15 points and 16 rebounds, the Heat outscored the Hornets in the paint 44-40.
Not only that, but defensively that inability to establish paint dominance came back to hurt the team. With less than a minute left and the Hornets down 102-98, nobody in a teal jersey was able to come up with a decisive rebound off a missed Batum floater. Instead the Heat won possession and let the entire shot clock run off before relinquishing the ball back.
It’s those little things that have continued to doom the Hornets, and the team is cognizant of where it stands. Friday was the first game in a stretch where the Hornets will play six of seven at home. For a team with a 2-11 road record this season, these home games are that much more crucial.
And if the Hornets can’t figure out a way to play better as a team, and better in general? Well, Batum knows, and he’s just focused on fixing that issue.
“That’s what I’m saying – we’ve got to play for each other,” Batum said. “Find a way to create for the other guys, find a good shot for some guys and play for what is in front.
“That’s what it’s supposed to be when you play basketball. That’s what I’m trying to do, that’s what we’re trying to do, but we’ve got to do it with consistency and every guy.”