And now they are really in the race to the playoffs.
After Friday night’s one-point road victory against the Indiana Pacers, the Charlotte Hornets are 30-27 with 25 games remaining. They are tied for the seventh-best record in the Eastern Conference and hold tiebreakers over the sixth-place Pacers (31-27) and eighth-place Chicago Bulls (30-27).
Clinching those tiebreakers could prove to be nearly as important as their final record in securing the third playoff appearance since the then-Bobcats’ inception in 2004.
"That’s very important. That’s something, going into these situations, we talk about. We know what it’s going to come down to down the stretch," point guard Kemba Walker said after Friday’s game.
"In the East it’s a lot different this year. Teams are playing some great basketball and you just don’t know (who will emerge). So to have a tiebreaker over both those teams is extremely important."
The Hornets can thank Walker for that. They lost a 14-point lead in the second half and trailed by one with 10 seconds left when coach Steve Clifford put Walker and center Cody Zeller into a high pick-and-roll and spread out his other players.
Nothing complex, but sometimes the best thing to do is turn the game over to your best player. Walker earned that this season with his improved shooting and all those games of 20 or more points.
"(Former San Francisco 49ers coach) Bill Walsh used to say players win. We have all these plays we tried to run before: ‘Get it here, get it there.’ This was get him the ball and everybody space out," Clifford said.
"That’s what every championship team has had since I’ve been in the league. People talk about what is hard to guard. I remember when (the NBA permitted zones) and (Miami Heat executive) Pat Riley said, ‘The hardest thing to guard is Michael Jordan at the elbow. It’s not all this movement.’ "
Clifford said Walker has become a dramatically better player in the pick-and-roll this season, to a large extent because he’s worked with assistant coaches Steve Hetzel and Bruce Kreutzer to improve his decision-making and 3-point shooting.
Walker is at a career-high 37.3 percent from 3-point range. That means opposing defenders can no longer afford to go under a screen, exposing Walker to an open 3-pointer. They instead must fight over the screen, which opens his drive game.
"My 3-ball. It changed everything. My confidence is at an all-time high now," Walker said.
"Me being able to make 3s at a high percentage? It changed my life, actually. Hopefully I can continue to shoot the ball the way I am."
Clifford has come to depend on Walker to finish games and that didn’t always succeed in the past. But Clifford knows Walker wants the ball and can handle the responsibility for whatever happens next.
"He wants the ball – no question about that – and he wants to take the big shot. Make or miss, he has courage. He’s rising up as if he can make it and that’s all you can ask," Clifford said.
Said Walker: "I’ve been in that situation and made some bad plays. It’s tough on you. But everyone is counting on me. My teammates want me to have that basketball."
"That’s just the kind of person I am. I definitely take personal responsibility (for winning and losing)."
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell