On Friday night, after the Charlotte Hornets narrowly lost to the Miami Heat, Kemba Walker went into the team’s locker room and told his teammates they were “right there” – right on the cusp of everything coming together, right on the cusp of finally completing some of these comeback attempts and winning basketball games.
But are they really?
The Hornets’ script as of late has been this, according to Nic Batum (but clear to any observer): start the game well, then fall behind, claw back into competitiveness, but then falter at the end and lose. Saturday against the Portland Trail Blazers followed that same narrative, as the Hornets ultimately lost 93-91 when Walker’s half-court heave at the buzzer clanked off the backboard.
For the second straight game, the Hornets (10-19) trailed by as many as 15, and for the second straight game, they were unable to overcome that deficit. That’s not unusual or out of the ordinary – 15 points is a lot to come back from for any team, not to mention one struggling with poor shooting and injuries and just about everything else you can imagine.
“Once again, we put ourselves in a bad situation where we were down like 15, 16,” Batum said, “and we can’t do that.”
But consecutive close losses, especially considering Batum’s effectiveness for one of the few times this season (he had a season-high 23 points Saturday), are hard to swallow. That’s why in the Hornets locker room on Saturday night, there were no rallying cries nor motivational talk. Instead there were hung heads, silence, and lots and lots of ice packs.
Now, Saturday’s game was not all bad. After the Blazers went on an 18-4 run at the end of the third quarter and early fourth, which put them up 83-67, the Hornets easily could have folded. But for all the criticism of this team, a lack of effort is not one that can be reasonably levied. Instead the Hornets rallied, tying it at 87 with about four minutes left.
Only they couldn’t get to the other side of the mountain. They turned the ball over, missed shot after shot (fittingly they shot a dismal 34.7 percent from the floor for the game) and were unable to make a game-winning play. Game-tying, yes. Game-winning is a different story.
On the surface, that refusal to quit may seem a reason for optimism, and at least it was for acting head coach Stephen Silas.
“We’ve got to just keep fighting and know that if we play like how we played at the end of this game, fourth quarter, the end of the third,” Silas said, “we’re going to win some games and we’re going to turn around.”
But this Hornets team has been an exemplary case study in recent games that “fight” and “effort” just aren’t enough in the NBA. You have to make shots, make plays of some sort – you have to differentiate between wanting to win and willing your team to win.
Recently the Hornets have been unable to muster the latter. It’s unfair to say that Walker’s buzzer-beating heave from half court (after Al-Farouq Aminu missed two free throws with seconds left that would have put Portland up for good) should have gone in. What isn’t unreasonable is to say that the Hornets shouldn’t have needed that heave to win the game, or at least force overtime.
There were plenty of other moments down the stretch when the Hornets could have made a shot or gotten a rebound that could have changed the game. Those plays didn’t happen, though.
Walker said this team is “right there,” and Batum echoed that again on Saturday.
The score says yes, that’s true. Their play says otherwise.