Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte Hornets’ small-ball lineup won’t be every night, but it did send a message

Kemba Walker seeing Tony Parker in Charlotte Hornets teal? He was a little excited

Tony Parker made his debut with the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday, playing alongside Kemba Walker in a small-ball lineup in the fourth quarter. Parker had spent 17 years with the San Antonio Spurs.
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Tony Parker made his debut with the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday, playing alongside Kemba Walker in a small-ball lineup in the fourth quarter. Parker had spent 17 years with the San Antonio Spurs.

So, Kemba Walker, you last played in a lineup like this when?.

“Never,” Walker said with a laugh.

Perhaps it was unprecedented in All-Star Walker’s seven-season NBA career, but I’m confident saying this won’t be the last time the Charlotte Hornets play small ball to such a degree.

After the starters embarrassed themselves in the first quarter, coach James Borrego went extreme. A lineup that had 6-foot-7 Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and 6-8 Nic Batum as the Hornets’ “big men” brought them back from a 20-point deficit.

They had the ball for what would have been a winning possession, but in the last four seconds Walker missed a layup and Batum missed a follow-up 3-pointer, allowing the Milwaukee Bucks to escape with a 113-112 victory at Spectrum Center.

When Borrego, a former San Antonio Spurs assistant, got the job last spring, he said he wasn’t afraid to go unorthodox. This certainly qualified. Batum said he’d never played center previously in the NBA, but that doesn’t mean he had any reservations.

“It would have been in France” as a teenager, Batum said. “But the NBA is so different right now. I started at shooting guard last season and now I’m a center sometimes. And that can work sometimes.

“We don’t need to do that every game, but in some situations it can be good the way we can stretch the floor.”

Batum said the lineup that brought the Hornets back - Walker, Tony Parker, Malik Monk, Kidd-Gilchrist and Batum - had never previously practiced as a unit. That says the extent to which Borrego was scrambling for a counter move to what got them down 20.

Charlotte Hornets' first- and second-round NBA draft picks Miles Bridges and Devonte' Graham are introduced to the media by general manager Mitch Kupchak.

Desperate times

The orthodox - a starting frontcourt of Cody Zeller, Marvin Williams and Batum, playing with guards Walker and Jeremy Lamb - made a mess in the first quarter. It was like they’d never seen a team play “Drive-and-kick” basketball before. The Hornets converged multiple players on Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, something any NBA defense would, but they were awful at then getting out on shooters. Milwaukee made seven of its first 11 looks from 3-point range and led 36-23 entering the second quarter.

So Borrego responded with a group that would be shorter than a contending ACC team, but it got results.

“I think we found a group that wanted to play,” Borrego said of the cobbled-together 3-guard formation. “They played with more urgency. The were fighting on the defensive end.

“The starting unit wasn’t prepared for this game mentally or physically.”

That was the interpersonal reasoning. From a tactical standpoint, small as these guys were, they also had some advantages, They switched defensively more the way Borrego desires. They made it difficult for Antetokounmpo (25 points, 18 rebounds and eight assists) to chase them around without fouling (he finished the game one away from a disqualification).

And it gave a platform both to Parker (eight points and a Hornets-high seven assists) and to Monk, who nailed four 3-pointers on his way to 18 points.

“That’s a very, very small lineup, but it worked pretty well,” Batum said. “We were pretty active.”

A message

This out-of-the-box approach gave the Hornets a chance and it also sent a message: Borrego isn’t going to accept the status quo. When I asked him the other day how settled he was with a rotation, he said he might not be entirely done exploring for the season’s first 40 games.

That’s a way of putting every player on notice that Borrego is not set in patterns. If they perform, they’ll play, as in Monk’s 34 minutes. And if they don’t perform - center Cody Zeller’s five points and three rebounds - then they will watch, as in Zeller’s 7 1/2 second-half minutes.

For all that change, the thing that stayed the same was Walker’s greatness. He finished with 41 points and made seven of his team’s 16 3-pointers. But it was that last layup, when he squirmed through two Bucks big men, that just wouldn’t fall.

“I missed, man, and I had a great look,” Walker said. “It wasn’t as difficult (a shot) as I thought it would be.

“I thought I took my eye off the rim a little bit. I’m (ticked). It’s going to eat me up tonight.”

No more than that first quarter must have eaten up Borrego.