The only thing more surprising than what the Charlotte Hornets did Saturday was how they did it.
The last time the Hornets beat a team as talented as the Boston Celtics was Dec. 7, when they knocked off the Denver Nuggets. There was no reason Saturday should have broken that pattern. The Hornets trailed by 18 in the fourth quarter.
And then they played eight minutes of hellacious defense. The Celtics scored all of five points the rest of the game, to lose 124-117.
It’s too late to say this will make any realistic difference in the Hornets’ playoff chances. After Sunday’s 115-114 victory at the buzzer in Toronto, they are 2 games behind the Miami Heat for that last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and have just three home games remaining. But Saturday’s win was their best victory in months, and that they accomplished this with shutdown defense was a shocker.
The Celtics had been destroying them offensively, particularly from the 3-point line (Boston finished this game 18-of-38 from long range). However, the Celtics let up with a 112-94 lead and the San Antonio Spurs already in Boston, waiting for a game Sunday.
“We never thought it was over. We saw them relaxing a little bit,” said Hornets rookie Miles Bridges, who scored a career-high 20 points. “Once we saw them relax, we wanted to get going.”
“Get going” resulted in a 30-5 run to end this game. Over those eight minutes the Celtics shot 2-of-19 from the field and committed five turnovers. That’s not to say the Hornets’ defense was responsible for all that chaos, but it was quite a departure from a team that entered Saturday’s game 21st among 30 teams in defensive efficiency.
“In this league, anything can happen. Of course, we’ve been on the other side (of this) before,” said Hornets point guard Kemba Walker, referring to two instances this season when leads of 20 or more points evaporated.
Walker finished one assist short of his third career triple-double: 36 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists. The Hornets obviously don’t win this game if Walker isn’t exceptional, but that isn’t necessarily the ongoing story resulting from Saturday.
It’s how the kids performed.
‘With us for a long time’
For the second consecutive game, coach James Borrego went way young with his rotation. Bridges has been starting for nearly a month, but the bench was radically different:
Dwayne Bacon started, as he did Thursday. Rookie Devonte Graham got Tony Parker’s minutes at backup point guard. Malik Monk and Willy Hernangomez were prominent off the bench.
Borrego hasn’t yet called this a true youth movement, perhaps because he doesn’t want to say the playoff chase is a moot point, but Monk, Graham and Hernangomez each played at least 17 minutes.
Borrego likes what he’s gotten of late.
“I’m just so proud of them and really happy for them, and I think this is our future,” he said.
“These are the guys who are going to be with us for a long time.”
Ultimately, that will be more general manager Mitch Kupchak’s call than Borrego’s, but it’s hard to view that as anything but a strong endorsement.
Since mid-December, the Hornets’ season has been about too many losses to obvious lottery teams and virtually no upsets of playoff teams. They beat the Spurs in January and the Brooklyn Nets this month. The Spurs and Nets are at or near the bottom of their respective conference’s playoff seedings.
Saturday doesn’t negate all the bad stuff that preceded it. But it gave Borrego something to think about in what will be roughly five months between the end of this season and training camp next fall.
“Think about the moments these young guys are getting to play in right now,” Borrego summed up. “Where the game is on the line, against a very good team in a playoff hunt.”
That’s not equivalent to a playoff series. But at least it’s a reminder how beating a good teams looks, and that’s more than they had at tipoff.