These two season-opening victories by the Charlotte Hornets could not have been more different.
Wednesday, they were great from opening tap, jumped out to a 20-point lead and watched the Milwaukee Bucks melt away. Friday, they couldn’t make shots early against the Miami Heat. But they plugged away, turned a 19-point deficit into a 10-point lead, and won 97-91.
There was one common denominator, however. Hornets coach Steve Clifford said for weeks it was imperative this team be great defensively from Game 1. That’s exactly who they have been in building a 2-0 record.
"I like their fight," Clifford said of a team that won despite losing its starting center, Roy Hibbert, to a sore right knee. He played only five minutes before acknowledging he would have only hurt his team by continuing Friday.
Some quick background on the Hibbert situation: Clifford said post-game that Hibbert needed to have the knee drained of fluid before the game in Milwaukee. No one knows whether he’ll be available for Saturday’s home opener against the Boston Celtics, but Hibbert doesn’t think this is serious long-term.
"I just tweaked it in the last game. I felt it wasn’t 100 percent, so I’d probably be a detriment to the team out there," Hibbert said.
"This happened two or three years ago, then went away. It’s just a reaction to a lot more activity. The doctors looked at it before and said everything is structurally fine – no tears or anything. So hopefully, nothing more is wrong."
American Airlines Arena has been a palace of horror for the Hornets. Beyond getting blitzed in Game 7 of last season’s first-round playoff series, the Heat had beaten the Hornets in 12 of the previous 13 regular-season games here.
Friday looked lost when the Hornets fell behind 65-46 on a floating 8-foot jump shot by Heat center Hassan Whiteside with just under 10 minutes left in the third quarter.
Whiteside was dominating this game, having fallen one rebound short of a double-double at halftime. But in the process, he ran up some fouls. He committed his fourth with 7 minutes, 40 seconds left in the third, and that sent him to the bench for a long stretch.
And then a funny thing happened: Charlotte’s bench, which looked shaky Wednesday in Milwaukee, came alive. Marco Belinelli, Ramon Sessions, Spencer Hawes and – particularly – Jeremy Lamb started pecking away at the Heat’s lead.
With 9:42 left in the fourth, Lamb hit a driving floater to tie the game. He launched the shot from only 2 feet, but it wasn’t easy. You need great body control and shooting acumen to make that one as your body is still moving toward the rim, rather than be stationary.
Then Sessions scored with a drive down the lane for the Hornets’ first lead.
It was wild and unpredictable and, to use Clifford’s word, full of fight. Then, starters Kemba Walker (24 points), Nic Batum and Marvin Williams came in to finish the job.
The run kept coming. The Hornets led by 10 with just under three minutes left on Batum’s 3-pointer. Then, Walker started attacking the rim with the realization Whiteside’s foul trouble threw off his aggressiveness defensively.
I’ve never seen Walker sadder than he was in the visitor’s locker room here after Game 7. I’ve seldom seen him happier than he was in that same locker room Friday.
What word sums up this team?
"Resiliency," Walker replied.
Sometimes simplicity says it all.