The Charlotte Hornets did a lot of fine work over those first 10 games.
They lost consecutive games only once. They beat a Utah Jazz team that is better than many fans realize. They went 4-1 on the road.
What they hadn’t done before Friday is beat anyone they’d face in a deep playoff run. That changed with this 100-96 victory over the Atlanta Hawks at Spectrum Center.
The Hawks are all that: They entered this game tied for the best record in the East at 9-2. They already beat the NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers. They have talent and balance, and convinced center Dwight Howard to come play for his hometown team.
As bad as Kemba Walker was in the first half, he was back to All-Star form in the fourth quarter with 10 of his 21 points, including two 3-pointers.
The Hornets beat that quality team with something short of their A game. When Kemba Walker, this team’s undisputed star, shot 0-of-7 in the first half, they seemed doomed.
Instead, they played as good a fourth quarter as they have all season. They outscored the Hawks 25-16, holding Atlanta to 3-of-17 shooting. Not incidental to that was Howard being ejected for a vicious elbow thrown at Cody Zeller.
As bad as Walker was in the first half, he was back to All-Star form in the fourth quarter with 10 of his 21 points, including two 3-pointers. That extended Walker’s streak of games with 20 or more points to 10.
What was to like about how this played out? Four thoughts:
If you only saw Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s line in the box score, you would have said he didn’t play well. He shot 3-of-10 from the field and grabbed five rebounds, three short of his average.
What none of that illustrates is the exceptional defense he played on the Hawks’ Kyle Korver, one of the NBA’s finest jump-shooters. Korver finished with five points on 2-of-6 shooting. Kidd-Gilchrist was so relentless fighting through screens that Korver got just one wide-open look, a second-half 3-pointer.
Nic Batum rises to the occasion
Sometimes Batum isn’t particularly aggressive hunting down his own shot. But with Walker so off in the first half, Batum had to compensate. He scored 18 first-half points, on 7-of-8 from the field, ending the game with a season-high 24 points, plus 10 rebounds.
Some people question whether Batum was worth the $120 million contract the Hornets signed him to in July. He sure earned his salary Friday.
Cody Zeller nearly fouled out guarding Dwight Howard, but obviously he agitated the future Hall of Famer into an early exit.
Batum and Zeller have a special synergy on the pick-and-roll. As big as any basket Friday was Zeller’s dunk off a pass from Batum. Batum hit Zeller in perfect stride for that connection.
Zeller has been thriving since the middle of last season, when the Hornets moved him to center due to Al Jefferson’s knee injury. Friday, he made nine of 10 shots from the field. He nearly fouled out guarding Howard, but obviously he agitated the future Hall of Famer into an early exit.
At halftime, with Walker having scored just two points, it seemed inevitable his streak of 20 or more points would end. And yet he persisted, hitting those two huge 3-pointers to help close out this victory.
I think Kemba is in a place right now where nothing intimidates him. It’s what Batum often says: The guy fears nothing.