Charlotte Hornets

Are Charlotte Hornets back in the playoff chase? How a ‘spirit’ has overtaken them

Charlotte Hornets on a season-beat 4-fame winning stteak

Coach James Borrego on a 4-game season-best Hornets winning streak
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Coach James Borrego on a 4-game season-best Hornets winning streak

There has to be something more changing about the Charlotte Hornets right now than just the results.

A team that never won more than three in a row this season, and almost never beat top teams, won their fourth straight Tuesday. They defeated the 43-32 San Antonio Spurs. Two nights earlier, they beat the 51-23 Raptors in Toronto. The night before that, they beat the 43-31 Boston Celtics in Charlotte.

Four in a row (the streak started against the Minnesota Timberwolves), combined with the quality of opponents, is so outside the pattern for the Hornets this season that something more has to be in play.

“There is a spirit about us. And I feel like we haven’t had it in a long time,” Hornets forward Marvin Williams told me after a 125-116 overtime victory.

“Guys are just out there playing (loose). And playing for each other.”

There’s a joy and a strut about this team right now, and it’s hard to distinguish whether that’s a cause or a result of the winning streak. Some of that has to be the injection of youth, via Dwayne Bacon, Miles Bridges and Devonte Graham, but it’s also how the veterans look less stressed.

Now, they are 1 1/2 games behind the Orlando Magic for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. I still doubt they can make up that ground over the remaining eight games, but the fact they believe they still can, and are performing that way, is in itself constructive.

“Coach (James Borrego) has given a ton of confidence to the younger guys, guys who haven’t played much this season,” Williams said. “It’s really helping their games. It’s been tremendous for us.”

The atmosphere in that post-game locker room in Miami, after the Heat clobbered the Hornets in the fourth quarter on March 17, was as low as I’ve seen this season. Williams draped a huge towel over his head and stooped over an ice bath for his feet for a half hour before ever looking up.

Shortly after what looked like a critical loss, Borrego started playing the kids. Bacon replaced Nic Batum as a starter and Graham got Tony Parker’s minutes behind Kemba Walker at point guard.

Parker was technically on the active roster Tuesday, but he wasn’t even on the bench during the game. Don’t read that as Parker not being on board with Borrego’s choice; Parker said Tuesday morning he’s cool with all this. This was the fifth game in a row he didn’t play; at 36, Parker knows there is merit to speeding Graham’s development.

‘Being where our feet are’

Post-game, I asked Borrego what he senses is different. I liked this part of his response:

“Not being overwhelmed by what’s happened in the past or what’s coming ahead,” Borrego said. “Being where our feet are and focusing on how we can get better. That’s all we can do and that’s all we’ll continue to do.”

The least that can come out of this is a lot more data on the young guys in games with stakes than they had a month ago. If somehow the Magic and Heat falter and the Hornets are in it the last full week of the regular-season, at least it will be entertaining.

So much would have to go right. Such as...

Four musts in playoff chase

With eight games left anything short of 6-2 the rest of the way probably wouldn’t do it. It’s hard to imagine neither Miami nor Orlando reaching 41-41.

They must show something on the road they haven’t displayed this season (11-24 outside Charlotte). They have only two games left at Spectrum Center and one of those is against a Raptors team on April 5 that will surely feel they owe the Hornets a loss after Jeremy Lamb’s 50-foot game-winner.

They probably have to steal one of two in a brutal back-to-back — at Golden State on March 31, followed by at Utah on April 1. One of the hardest things to do in the NBA is play in the Pacific time zone one night, then in Mountain Time altitude without a day off in-between.

Beat the Magic at home the final night of the regular season, both for the win and to take the season series with Orlando 3-1. Tiebreakers are one of the few advantages the Hornets have in what is still a tiny margin for error.

Rick Bonnell is a sportswriter/columnist for the Charlotte Observer. He has been in Charlotte since 1988, when the NBA arrived, and has covered the Hornets continuously. A former president of the Pro Basketball Writers Association, Bonnell also writes occasionally on the NFL and college sports.
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