Charlotte Hornets

Hornets’ playoff hopes hinged on starters trusting each other. Now? ‘We’ve finally got it’

Nic Batum (right) and Dwight Howard (center) had to trust each other on the court for the Charlotte Hornets to have any hope of making the playoffs. Now they are, and the team is on a five-game winning streak.
Nic Batum (right) and Dwight Howard (center) had to trust each other on the court for the Charlotte Hornets to have any hope of making the playoffs. Now they are, and the team is on a five-game winning streak. AP

In the early goings of this Charlotte Hornets season, Nic Batum was almost like a broken record in the locker room.

The Hornets would lose game after game, digging themselves into their current hole (a 28-33 record after Tuesday night’s 118-103 victory over the Chicago Bulls), and yet, Batum’s optimism never wavered.

We just have to play together, he would say. Get everyone on the same page – then wait and see.

At the time it sounded a touch naive, especially considering the team’s penchant for falling behind big and then being forced to climb out of a deficit. And as the losses continued to mount, that sentiment gradually faded from the collective consciousness.

But now? In the midst of a five-game winning streak, the team’s longest this season, it appears Batum’s old line was indeed prophetic.

“The connection is pretty great as a team right now,” Batum said. “We’ve finally got it.”

A major aspect of that “playing together” ideal hinged on Batum’s on-court connection with Dwight Howard, the Hornets’ biggest offseason acquisition. As one of the Hornets’ primary facilitators and playmakers, Batum’s job is getting the ball in the hands of the team’s best players. That means players like Kemba Walker and Howard.

But from the onset of the season, Batum and Howard didn’t always gel on the court. Batum suffered an elbow injury in the first quarter of the team’s first preseason exhibition, and that cost him six weeks of on-court repetition with Howard. When he finally returned to the floor soon after Thanksgiving, he hadn’t had any time to mesh with Howard, a future Hall of Famer.

It only makes sense that they struggled to connect.

“It always takes time. For the fans and for people in general, they don’t see that,” Howard said. “They want things to work right away, and in this sport, it takes time to really get to know a player – what he likes, how he likes the ball.”

Nic Batum (5) had a season-high 12 assists Tuesday in a 118-103 win over the Chicago Bulls, and a large chunk of those assists went to Dwight Howard (12), like on this alley-oop. Bob Leverone AP

As the season progressed though, that bond began to show on the court. Batum recognized Howard’s spots and made the right passes. Howard learned Batum’s passing tendencies and adjusted his game.

The result couldn’t have been more clear than on Tuesday. Batum did not score in the first half and only made three shots all night. No matter – he more than compensated with his passing, dishing a season-high 12 assists.

And a large chunk of those went to Howard.

“We’ve finally got this lob situation,” Batum said with a chuckle. “Been working on that for a couple of weeks, and that’s pretty easy now.”

Howard finished with 24 points, six rebounds and five blocks. Batum, in addition to his 12 assists, had 10 points and seven rebounds. Individually, each was impressive. Together, as the Bulls found out, they were unstoppable.

“The whole dynamic between those two guys on the floor just grows to me weekly. You can see it,” coach Steve Clifford said. “They’re getting the feel of how to play with each other.

“(Batum’s) passing since the All-Star break has been ridiculous ... so he’s playing at a really high level.”

The trick now will be maintaining that relationship over the rest of the season. Clifford called their connection “major” as far as the team reaching its pinnacle this season – which at this point, would be a playoff berth.

If the Hornets can actually do that remains to be seen, but the evidence since the All-Star break is certainly encouraging. Batum has averaged nine assists over that stretch, and the team has scored 116.25 points per contest, too.

Those are the sorts of statistics that contribute to a five-game winning streak, but the Hornets realize they’re not done clawing back just yet. They still sit several games back of the final playoff spot in the East. The only way to get there? Well, Howard made that clear as he left the locker room Tuesday night.

“We gotta keep it going.”

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889, @brendanrmarks